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.