The Lost Country
By William Gay
Dzanc Books, July 2018
Hardcover: 368 pages, $26.95
William Gay’s posthumous novel, THE LOST COUNTRY, is an incredibly resonant and engaging story on many fronts: its path to publication, its constantly compelling narrative, and its gorgeous prose.
When he passed, in 2012, Gay was already a writer of some renown, author of a half-dozen works of fiction, two of which were adapted to the screen. “The day after [William] died,” J.M. White writes in the novel’s afterword, “the publisher for THE LOST COUNTRY called to ask me to go…see if I could retrieve the manuscript.” This was a manuscript White had been hearing about for thirty years, since Gay had started writing it, and he was eager to find it. He tried calling the Gay family first, but nobody answered. Then Gay’s son, William Junior, called and “said he had a tub full of notebooks he wanted me to help go through.” When White arrived, Junior “brought out a plastic tub full of William’s handwritten notebooks.” Later, Wright “stayed up most of the night sorting the notebooks into piles based on the characters that appeared in them.” Altogether, with tubs held also by Gay’s two sons, there were fifty-eight handwritten notebooks. White archived them and copied the notebooks and sent them off to the publisher, who promptly rejected them. A synopsis White found “laid out the plotline,” and, following that, “a small group of William’s friends started typing.” White began “laying out the typed sections based on the synopsis.”
Later, in an attic, White discovered “hundreds of pages of old cheap typing paper in various stages of decay and yellowing, lots of them bent and crumbled.” Yet he discerned the names of the characters from THE LOST COUNTRY. Most pages were unnumbered. While it was “a jumble, a hodgepodge, the pages totally out of order,” this at last was a typed copy of THE LOST COUNTRY. Still later, another tub was found behind “a few pieces of sheetrock leaning against the end wall” of the house Gay had built. To the team’s surprise, “the ending to THE LOST COUNTRY was in one of the notebooks that had been hidden behind the sheetrock.” This was ready to become the final draft the publisher wanted to reconsider: “But they no sooner got a copy of the manuscript than the publisher died of a heart attack.” After years of struggling to reobtain the rights to the book, and months of hunting for a publisher, the sage Dzanc Books took on this novel. The world is lucky they did.
For THE LOST COUNTRY is one of those rare books that is both deeply literary and hugely entertaining. Featuring an ever-expanding cast of characters and the gorgeous landscape and intense poverty of the land along the Tennessee River in 1955, this novel offers stunning line by line writing, a terrific sense of event, and an accumulation of conflict that both finds its way to an essential violence and dissolves into a satisfying existentialism. At the heart of the novel is Billy Edgewater, a young drifter fleeing a past haunted by a girlfriend lost to her own hand in a brutal attempt at abortion. He has made his way back from the Navy and San Diego to his home state, where his father lays dying and his mother has been long dead, only to resist the final steps toward reunion and redemption, as filled as he is with ambivalence and loathing and shame. In the opening pages Edgewater becomes involved in a mad scheme to help his girlfriend reclaim her motorcycle, a bar fight that lands him in jail, and finally a nasty break-up with the girl that leaves him on foot and at a total loss. If Billy doesn’t find trouble, trouble finds him.
Told in third person intimate points of view, Billy eventually meets up with Roosterfish, a one-armed con man of many forms, and they eke out a living duping their fellow poor with fake exterminating services and seriously diluted roof paint. “I steer clear of folks with money,” Roosterfish tells Billy, who is unsettled by this approach, “I ain’t that ambitious…Besides, a rich man gets madder’n hell. A poor man is so used to things goin wrong, he thinks he’s got it comin to him. He halfway expects it. He’ll cuss a little or pray a little, dependin on his beliefs, and that’s the end of it.”
Just as Billy predicts, eventually the con men are violently confronted by people they have cheated in one scam or another, and their paths separate. Billy, as is his way, lunges into a pool hall fight and finds himself incarcerated with Bradshaw, a smooth-talking small time criminal who had temporarily landed in the flush as a kind of dear-heart to the owner of an outdoor movie theater. Alas, Bradshaw gets kicked to the curb as a result of his contribution to the pool fight, but declares his friendship for Billy, who rescued him from a potentially terrible beating. The two pals break from jail and make their way to Bradshaw’s old home, where his father has passed in his prolonged absence and his mother and sister Sudy are holed up in a relatively nice house, living off the realized life insurance. Billy becomes recklessly involved with Sudy, despite the mother’s constant eye and keen foreboding.
Through all this looms the evil presence of D.L. Harkness, who has negatively impacted the lives of virtually every major character and feels himself “the steed in this barn lot.” Having already ruined Roosterfish’s wife a long time ago, he takes up with Sudy after she herself separates from Billy when their child is stillborn. The novel’s climax involves a terrific but brief buckshot versus pick-up duel between Roosterfish and Harkness, which dooms both men.
No summary can do justice to this plot, which is constantly inventive and consistently authentic. It’s also wonderfully infused with conflicting economic philosophies, between those who want better lives and those who are just happy to endure. At one point, Billy tells Sudy, as they await their child’s birth, “We’ll get by.” “I don’t want to get by,” Sudy says. “You’re not supposed to just get by. We’ve got a baby on the way. And anybody can get by. I want nice things, pretty clothes, things other people have. Don’t you care what people think?” Later, Roosterfish tries to talk Billy into trying to make one last big score, and attempts to egg him on with jealousy toward Harkness and his money and the fact that he’s taken up with Billy’s ex-wife. “Billy, don’t it make you mad?” Roosterfish asks. ‘Why should it?” Billy retorts. ‘You look at things and you don’t see just one thing, you see a…a progression of things. One of them leading to the next. The inevitability of things.”
Overall there is the novel’s considerable poetry, mostly rising from its descriptions of landscape, but also coming from its evocation of character. Of Billy’s girlfriend at the novel’s outset, he observes: “There was something jittery about Claire that precluded calm. She was always in motion and always talking. He’d watched her sleep and even then her life went on, her face jerking in nervous tics at the side of her mouth, her iris-colored eyes moving beneath night translucent lids like swift blue waters.” The compression without hyphenate helps these evocations achieve a larger, even more interesting sound. The sentences in this novel are often long and beautiful, torqueing one way and then another, ending in surprise, and a character’s accessories can be themselves a kind of compound. Roosterfish drives around in “a rolling shack, a sharecropper’s shanty on wheels.” The novel is remarkable not only as entertainment, but as art.
As J.M. White wrote about the consensus the editing team reached upon first reading this nearly lost novel: “We all agreed it was as great as anything he had written.” It just has to be. It has to be.