A standard recipe for fiction served Southern Gothic style calls for any of the following ingredients: a mysterious disappearance, an unsolved murder, a bottomless pit, a son’s vengeance, an innately evil bootlegger, an old man with a troubled past. Then if the author throws in some corruption, incest, violated taboos, cursed ground, foreboding nature, and realistic details, he might get something that tastes like Faulkner, O’Connor, or McCarthy. Right? William Gay’s debut novel, The Long Home, contains all of the above but demonstrates just how wrong this particular assumption can be.
The book’s prologue describes two events: the explosive opening of a bottomless pit on Thomas Hovington’s property, and the murder of Nathan Winer by badman Dallas Hardin (a poor but uncomfortably close imitation of Flem Snopes from Faulkner’s The Hamlet). After a couple of days, sounds emanate from the pit: “Hovington called it voices. They bespoke him with languorous foreboding.”
Honestly, I was intrigued by the pit and its possibilities and was willing to go along with languorous forebodings being bespoken, although I’m not at all sure what that would sound like. Maybe Hovington was barmy or something, hearing those voices, and for a while it seemed like Dallas Hardin’s genesis might be connected with the pit. But alas, the pit gets no further development (except for two dead bodies that get tossed in). Dallas was there long before the pit opened. And Hovington contracts a spinal disease that renders him unable to do anything but slowly die on a cot in the living room of his house for about 150 pages while Hardin takes over his wife and whisky still.
Numerous times throughout the book, Gay builds reader expectation by intense description and/or dramatic dialogue, then puts a fence around it and moves on, never letting us turn back. Red herrings of this sort abound throughout this novel, which will frustrate any reader who tries looks for thematic unity, good prose or even a simple, interesting plot. Several characters occupy a good amount of space in the book, but have no apparent purpose; having taught the protagonist nothing, they actually disengage from the plot as things move toward the climax. The subjects of his long descriptive passages, which traditionally signal the exposition of a theme, are apparently chosen at random because they do not add anything to the plot. If they are there to showcase his prose, then I will say his use of onomatopoeial words such as “sibilant” and “tintinnabulation” is unparalleled.
The word is that William Gay has a second novel in the works that has already received much critical acclaim. Once bitten twice shy?