Tuesday, March 11, 2008

The Long Home (1999)

The Long Home, William Gay’s 1999 debut novel is set in the deeply rural Tennessee of the 1940s, a time when most of its inhabitants were still isolated by a lack of automobiles and telephones. Amidst this isolation they often learned the hard way that local law enforcement officers were on the payroll of the highest bidder and that it was always best for a person to simply mind his own business and get on with his life rather than to try to right wrongs done to others. There could have been no more perfect an environment, of course, for someone with the nerve and the will to do whatever it took to profit at the expense of his neighbors.

Into this perfect environment appeared one Dallas Hardin, a man who would let nothing stand between him and what he wanted, even if what he wanted was another man’s wife, home and business. He simply took those things and dared you to do anything about it. Those tempted to try to do something about Hardin knew that they would likely end up dead and that life would just go on without them. As a result, the evil that Hardin was continued to grow stronger by the year.

That is not to say that everyone closed their eyes when it came to Dallas Hardin and what he represented. Some, like old William Tell Oliver who lived nearby Hardin’s dancehall, could hardly help observing some of the things that went on there when no one else was around, including vicious beatings and even murder. One or two, like young Nathan Winer whose father had his own run-in with Hardin, were willing to stand up to Hardin – up to a point.

A classic battle of good vs. evil was bound to happen when someone brave enough to take on Dallas Hardin finally had enough of his ways. Little did Nathan Winer think that by falling in love with Hardin’s “stepdaughter” that he would be the one to trigger that confrontation or that he and old man Oliver would find themselves locked with Hardin in a fight to the finish.

William Gay’s writing is like Cormac McCarthy’s in that it deals with people who are trying to scratch a living from the land, dirt farmers, small ranchers, day laborers, bootleggers, and the women who have to depend on them. Gay’s world is often bloody and violent, and like McCarthy, he goes where his story leads and does not soften or hide that violence by quickly moving on to the next scene. That willingness to face violence head-on is part of the makeup of Gay’s characters and his readers should be prepared to do the same because this is one of the roughest coming-of-age novels that they are likely ever to encounter.

Since 1999 Gay has followed The Long Home with two more novels and a collection of short stories. His work is firmly in the Southern Gothic mode, almost always set in the South of the 1940s and 1950s, and has drawn favorable comparisons to the work of McCarthy, Faulkner, O’Connor and Caldwell. Fans of that illustrious group might want to check out the work of William Gay to see what they have been missing.

Rated at: 4.0

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