Wednesday, July 04, 2012

Provinces of Night by William Gay

When I was a kid I was obsessed by Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London. Every English composition I wrote at school was based on it, set in a casual ward and peopled by honest, gritty, struggling men reduced by the capitalist state to penury and deprivation. Then I read Dee Brown’s Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee and every composition thereafter was based on the noble, brave Red Indian and his oppression by the dread upholders of Manifest Destiny. I learned the rudiments of creative writing by this approach, to be sure, but those essays could only be described as painfully derivative.

William Gay’s Provinces of Night takes as its title and epigram quotations from Cormac McCarthy’s Child of God. Would that it hadn’t. Would that the influence of McCarthy was a little less obvious throughout this novel. Would that the reader never had to confront ham McCarthyisms such as “Or was utterly alien to their frame of reference, emissary from some race set apart” or “On the porch the old man in the rocking chair sat staring burnteyed at him like some revenant out of his past”. Seriously, those and a number of similar examples in the novel could easily have won a prize in a “ham it up like Cormac McCarthy” competition.

It’s a great shame because if this novel was shorn of those hideous mannerisms it would be a mighty fine piece of work. As it stands, it’s a mighty fine piece of work punctuated by almost amateurish parodies of another writer. Why on earth would Gay write sub-McCarthy nonsense like: “Who handled them reverently and turned them to the light and studied the spiraling grooves as if they’d find there some physical evidence of their own provisional existence, as if their very lives were somehow encoded there”? Writing in a tradition is one thing – McCarthy’s The Orchard Keeper, for example, is almost pure Faulkner in style and tone – but when elements of your prose begin to resemble fan-fiction you have clearly taken admiration too far. And William Gay is by some measure too good a writer in his own right to allow that to happen.

The novel is set in rural Tennessee in 1952. You can guess, then, that we’re in for a slice of southern gothic, and that’s exactly what we have. The protagonist is 17 year old Fleming Bloodworth, a literary-minded innocent with a family straight out of Yoknapatawpha central casting: his father, Boyd, abandons him to head for Detroit in order to search for and kill his wife’s lover; his uncle Warren is a womaniser who impregnates Raven Lee Halfacre, the girl Fleming loves; his other uncle Brady is an alcoholic with a penchant for placing (failed) hexes on people who irk him; his grandfather, absent in Arkansas for twenty years, makes his return to Tennessee in all his eccentric glory. Thus, we have the standard southern fiction pattern of dysfunctional family and a youngster – a Sarty Snopes – trying to rise above the “fierce pull of blood”.

All of this is beautifully told. It would be easy for such a set of characters to descend into parody or become a two-dimensional southern gothic soap opera. But here, despite their eccentricities, the characters remain credible. Similarly, the plot careers along with gusto but, again, stays within the realms of the possible. All of this is due to Gay’s fine descriptive powers and ability to paint a living scene. It is made possible, too, by trademark southern humour, particularly in the dialogue of the combatants.

As with most southern gothic, there is something elegaic in the writing, and yet it is difficult to pinpoint exactly what the subject of that elegy might be. There is, at once, a critique of a hard and brutal way of life and a lament for its passing. The men (it is mostly men, of course, women in southern writing usually exist to be either fought over or, having been fought over and won, to be downbeaten and harassed) seemingly possess no moral compass, yet their actions are often depicted with an odd sense of honourableness. It is this same sense of contingency which infests McCarthy’s fiction, an ambivalence about a whole way of life. It is as though these writers, knowing in their hearts that the lifestyles they write about are brutal and unedifying, still believe them to be somehow better than anything the modern world can offer in substitution. So, on the one hand, Fleming Bloodworth’s battles with his blood kin can represent a rejection of the old ways of living, but at the same time William Gay presents us with the Tennessee Valley Authority’s flooding of whole areas of Tennessee and resulting loss of entire communities. McCarthy wrestled with similar material in The Orchard Keeper – witness Ather’s shooting of the water tank, symbol of outside interference. (And, in real life, of course, McCarthy’s father worked for the TVA.) We may want to change, these writers say, but we want to change in our own way. It must be a hard existence for them, uncomfortable as they seem to be living in either the past or the present.

The result of all this is that the thematic core of much southern fiction is at best, to use a word beloved of both McCarthy and Gay, provisional. There are no easy answers. But then again, there aren’t in life either, are there? And Provinces of Night is definitely worth a read, despite the cringeworthy McCarthyisms.


Jim H. said...

For good or ill, nobody writes like McCarthy. And, as you point out, it's obvious when they try.

Then, again, not all us Southerners bow either the stylistic or thematic knee to ol' Count NoCount of Oxford.

That South has past. Our South now is the South of the Newt Gingriches and Herman Cains and Eric Cantors and Mitch McConnells of our world. (Certainly in part, anyway)

First as tragedy, then as farce. Which is, itself, at times, tragic in its own special sort of way.

Tom Conoboy said...

Hi Jim, nice to hear from you again.

I'm interested in what you say about the new South. What is southern literature like these days? Who should I be reading?

literatimom said...

Just wrote about this text over at and mentioned your post. I'm interested in the ways that the novel emphasizes the promise of education and uses gestational/birth imagery to represent this promise.

Tom Conoboy said...

Hi literatimom, thanks for commenting.

yes, I think your ideas about education and gestation are quite compelling.

On the education side, you're clearly right about the two youngsters being different from the rest of their kin because of their shared love of reading. That is quite interesting in itself. A great deal of southern literature is, at the very least, ambivalent about education. The idea of the boy (usually a boy) going off to school and getting fancy ideas and coming back having been taught almost into uselessness can be seen in a great deal of southern writing. Educated people are often the least sympathetic characters. Think of Tarwater's uncle in The Violent Bear it Away. Or in Madison Jones's The Innocent. And there's Suttree, in McCarthy's Suttree, who is (part) university educated but shuns that learning (as did McCarthy himself, of course).

So you could argue that Gay is subverting a southern trope.

On the gestation idea, again I think you're right. What I find interesting is that the boy burns down the cabin first. Before it is obliterated by the gestational waters, he has already destroyed it. That is no doubt significant. It is presumably him making the absolute break from his kin. In that, it may be an echo of Sarty in Faulkner's Barn Burning.

thanks again for your insightful comments.

literatimom said...

Excellent points.

I like the idea that Gay might be subverting the trope of the futility of education.

And I agree that it must be significant that Fleming burns the cabin before the basin is flooded. Like you said, he is making a break with his family. Perhaps in this gesture he is also accepting that which the life-giving waters (that he knows are coming whether he wants them or not) might have to offer him. Maybe he makes the choice to accept the flood as a symbol of positive change, just as he makes the choice to accept Raven Lee's baby as a symbol of positive change.

I've never read any McCarthy. Are there maternal bodies in his stories? :)

Tom Conoboy said...

Maternal bodies in McCarthy: hmm, I think there's a paper waiting to be written on the LACK of maternal bodies in McCarthy.

He's pretty much renowned for his male world. Women are more likely to be prostitutes (Joyce in Suttree, Magdalena in Cities of the Plain) or harridans (Mother She in Suttree, Mrs Gregg in The Gardener's Son). McCarthy is noted for the fraught father-son relationships in his novels, but the mother-son relationship is equally notable by virtue of its absence. John Grady Cole's mother left the family when he was young in All The Pretty Horses. In The Road, the mother commits suicide because she cannot go on any longer. John Wesley's mother in The Orchard Keeper is a bitter woman who tries to poison his mind.

One interesting exception, though, is his early novel Outer Dark. That is the story of a brother and sister, Culla and Rinthy, who have an incestuous child. Culla abandons the child in the woods and tells Rinthy it died. Unknown to him, it is picked up by a tinker. Rinthy, the sister, finds out the child isn't dead and spends the novel searching for it. Months later she is still lactating. She demonstrates pure love for her child. In McCarthy's work she is a most unusual character - a woman sympathetically drawn.