Sunday, April 20, 2008

BOOK REVIEW by Gary Carden

I Hate To See That Evening Sun Go DownI Hate to See That Evening Sun Go Down by William Gay
New York: The Free Press – 2002
$24.00 – 303 pages

I hate to see that evening sun go down,
‘Cause it makes me think I’m on my last go-round.
…The graveyard sure is a lonesome place,
They lay you on your back and throw the dirt down in your face.
- Jimmy Rogers, the singing brakeman

To tell you the truth, I was getting a little nervous. Here we are in
November, 2002, and I’ve not seen anything that qualified as the “best book of the
year.” Then, a prime collection of short stories from Tennessee came to
rest on the City Lights bookshelf (Sylva, N. C.)… I snatched it up and fled home to the
comfort of an early fire in the fireplace, and a pot of coffee. After reading
five or six tales, I’m thinking this may be the best in the last five years! In
any case, it is gratifying to know that Appalachia provides home and refuge
to a writer like William Gay.

The theme that threads its way through these fourteen stories is
“life in extremis” – beleaguered characters at the end of their tether.
Invariably, Gay’s protagonists suddenly wake to find that time, fate and/or
their own stupidity has backed them into a corner. As one trapped man observes,
he has passed through a series of doors which only open inwards – there is
no going back. In each instance, Gay’s purpose is to record how besieged
humanity copes with adversity. Consider the following examples.

In the title work, “I Hate to See that Evening Sun Go Down,” old man
Meecham is a fugitive from the nursing home. After his escape (he simply
called a taxi and rides away), he confided to an old acquaintance that being
in a nursing home was like working in a factory where they made dead people.
However, the old man’s plans to return to his farm are shattered when he
discovers that his son ( a successful attorney) has rented the property and now
refuses to help his father regain his home. Meecham begins a protracted fight
to evict the renter. The ensuing ordeal is desperate, doomed and humorous as
the old man resorts to harassment, legal action and violence. His stubborn
refusal to accept his defeat makes his dilemma memorable. (I’ll never forget
Nipper, the dog that is trained to bark furiously when he hears the word “Hush!”

Over half of the stories in this collection deal with the consequences
of love lost. Regardless of how the loss occurs – betrayal, shattered illusion
or callous rejection – the consequences are devastating. In “A Death in the
Woods,” Pettijohn’s world collapses when he learns that a man has
committed suicide on his property – a heavily wooded tract adjoining his
home. Becoming obsessed with the tragedy, Pettijohn is determined to
learn who the man was and why he chose Pettijohn’s property for his death.
In contrast, Carlene, Pettijohn’s wife seems unmoved by the suicide – a
reaction that becomes chilling when her husband learns the truth……

Then there is Quincy Nell, the hot-blooded, single-minded teenager
of “Bonedaddy, Quincy Nell and the Fifteen Thousand BTU Electric Chair.”
When Quincy Nell decides to seduce and eventually wed Bonedaddy, the
town’s most notorious despoiler of virgins, powerful forces are set in
motion – agents that move with horrific, hilarious and fatal consequences.
Things might have turned out differently if Quincy Nell hadn’t set her
heart on owning an air conditioner for her honeymoon apartment…..

Crosswaithe, the protagonist of “The Man Who Knew Dylan,” has
been trapped in a grim existence – his dying wife lingers in the local
hospital and Crosswaithe has a dead-end job with his brother-in-law in a
TV store. Then, he makes a fateful trip to repossess a TV and encounters
Carmie who has a stash of uncashed social security checks (her father’s)
and a frozen corpse in the deep freeze…..

In “Those Deep Elm Brown’s Ferry Blues,” the aging Scribner
struggles to tell the difference between dreams, fantasy and reality, as
Alzheimer’s gradually claims him. Left to the indifferent care of a son that
he frequently fails to recognize, Scribner wanders in a dark past of murder,
passion and betrayal – a world that becomes preferable to a “reality” where
he has no purpose…. In “Crossroads Blues,” the heart-broken, drunk and
potential suicide, Karas awakes in a remote wilderness, wondering
where his truck left the road. However, a chance encounter with an old
man searching for ginsang gives him a sobering insight into his
predicament. “Take up Zen, needlepoint or the salvation of human souls,”
he counsels himself. “Find a Southern star and use it as a sextant”……

“Closure and Roadkill on the Life’s Highway” gives us Raymer, a
construction worker who grieves for the loss of his wife, Corrie by creating
someof the best metaphors I have ever read: For example, Corrie has
“inserted the point of a chisel into the fault line “ of his heart “and tapped it
once lightly.” But when Raymer meets a fragile senior citizen who claims to
have almost $20,000 buried in a cave on the Tennessee River, and asks Raymer to
retrieve it – Corrie decides she has misjudged Raymer. Ah, dear reader,
this is a torrid, cynical little parable of human frailty, and the final
revelation – complete with a dead fox – is a pleasure to read.

Beasley had been married for over thirty years when he made a
fatal mistake. He bought his wife a little dog, never dreaming that his
marriage, his home, family and the illusion of security would all vanish
as a consequence. “Sugarbaby” chronicles the surreal decline of a man
who mistakenly believed that the proper response to life is to “mind
your own business and stay out of other people’s affairs.” Beasley had
not reckoned with the destructive power of a good lawyer….

The fate of all of the characters in I Hate to See That Evening Sun
Go Down can be summed up in a speech by Robert Vandaveer, the doomed,
aging hippie in “Good ‘Til Now.” This response came when he was asked
if he is a drug addict:

Everybody’s on drugs, he said. The world’s on drugs. Heroin,
sex, booze, money. Television. Comfort. Any kind of crutch
you can hobble through the day on is a drug. Darkness. They
say when you get old enough, you look forward to dying. That
is the drug you reach for when the other crap doesn’t work

Addiction, then, is the motif that binds these tales together. The
writing is poetic and memorable. Just as he has demonstrated in his two
previous novels, The Long Home and Provinces of the Night, Gay
captures the language and life style of Appalachia with a near-painful
accuracy. Here they are, the denizens who live in trailer parks, farms
and small-town apartments – who listen to country music, hang out in beer
joints and drive pick-up trucks – all treated with compassion and humanity.
Gay’s characters love, kill and lie awake in the dark just like the rest of
mankind and their foolishness and pain is lovingly rendered in each of
these stories.

One final note. One of these stories is so masterfully rendered, it
deserves special comment. “The Paperhanger” is a singular work – a kind
of distillation of gothic horror that combines the essence of writers like
Cormac McCarthy and Flannery O’Conner. In a world in which killers
proclaim “I am God,” this character glows like a malign red star in the