William Gay’s Literary World

Late in 2021 I discovered the literary world of William Gay, and fell in love with it. If you don’t care for the fiction of Cormac McCarthy, Flannery O’Connor, Katherine Anne Porter, and William Faulkner, you may not like the literary world of William Gay. But if you do gravitate towards Southern Gothic literature, you will likely appreciate William Gay’s literary world. 

A few of Gay’s books remain for me to have read his oeuvre. And I’m eager to get to them. Why? Well, it’s Gay’s wordsmithing, the sheer beauty of his language. Just read and savor the power of this passage from Twilight, a volume of Gay’s I completed just this week: 

Beyond the window the night looked purple. The window vanished and thunder came rumbling down the corridors of the night. The rain came in hard, windy gusts, then subsided to a slow, steady winter drizzle, and he wondered where Sutter was. Under boughs of cedar, hidden with the nightbirds clotted about the branches like malefic fruit, driven to earth like the rest of the beasts of this fabled wood. Crouched in a dry spot beneath the caved roof of an abandoned house, malign revenant among other revenants keeping council. Cursing the rain and biding his time. Or maybe he had just trudged on, as impervious to the vagaries of the weather as stone. 

The above passage is indicative of Gay’s style. Like McCarthy, he is a master of capturing his world’s landscape. For Gay, it’s Tennessee—with its rolling hills, caves, limestone, backwoods gnomes, and ominous mysteries. Gay makes the woods pulse with mystery—the perfect setting for the moral evils men and women commit. 

Some of the violence and moral depravity you come across in Gay’s literary world is so haunting that you will wonder if man is noble at all. But then you will read of those who sacrifice themselves for others, and do it out of sheer love. No boasting, no public acclaim, no recognition by others. That was William Gay’s way, too. He did not publish until he was in his fifties. But when the literary world discovered him, he was recognized for the literary giant he was. Read William Gay’s works. There are a couple of interviews of him you can find on YouTube, too. You sense even in his interviews how much he left unsaid. He played the ignorant bumpkin from TN; in fact, he was a masterful writer of literature and a writer for the ages. 

1 Gay, William. Twilight (Ann Arbor: Dzanc Books, 2006), 186. 

2 thoughts on “William Gay’s Literary World

  1. I will have to check out his works. I have been to his hometown of Hohenwald, Tennessee; I sang there in a concert with my college choir when he would have been in his thirties (I wonder if he heard us sing). I remember that particular concert because I had forgotten the highly polished black shoes we wore to perform and had to avoid our director discovering my worn brown loafers.


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