William Elbert Gay (October 27, 1941 – February 23, 2012) was an American writer of novels and short stories.
Life and career
Gay was born in Hohenwald, Tennessee. After high school, Gay joined the United States Navy and served during the Vietnam War. After returning to the States, he lived in both New York City and Chicago before returning to Lewis County, Tennessee, where he lived from 1978 until his death. Even though he has written since the age of fifteen, Gay did not publish anything until 1998, when two of his short stories were accepted by literary magazines. Before then, Gay made his living as a carpenter, drywall-hanger and house painter. In 1999, Gay published his first novel, The Long Home. Gay was quickly hyped as "the real thing," a new Larry Brown.
The Long Home belongs firmly in the Gothic tradition of Southern literature (Southern Gothic), and the echoes of William Faulkner, Thomas Wolfe, and Cormac McCarthy haunt the prose. Gay displayed a keen sense of storytelling, and his rural characters bring to mind those of Erskine Caldwell and Flannery O'Connor. The novel won the 1999 James A. Michener Memorial Prize and sold well enough to start a bidding war for his second novel. Provinces of Night was published in late 2000 and confirmed Gay’s knack for storytelling. It furthermore cemented Gay’s status as the most obvious heir to the Faulkner/McCarthy legacy, and later formed the basis for the 2010 independent film Bloodworth. In 2002, Gay published a collection of stories, I Hate to See That Evening Sun Go Down, and in 2006 Gay's third novel, Twilight was published. With its story of a kinky undertaker who hires a hitman to kill a nosy teenager, Twilight is Gay's most obvious straighfowardly Southern Gothic novel.
Gay’s fiction is almost always set in the rural South of the 1940s and 50s. This alone lends it an air of old-fashioned authenticity similar to that of Faulkner and O’Connor. Gay's South is as darkly violent and as dirt-poor as anything by Caldwell or O’Connor. Gay's novels take the shape of coming-of-age stories. His three novels depict young idealistic boys that turn into men through a series of violent encounters in which they must make tough moral decisions to face and defeat the evil they are up against. Another recurrent theme in Gay's fiction is his preoccupation with "plain folk," such as carpenters and bootleggers, who are frequently the kin of the young men coming of age. In addition, Provinces of Night deals with another issue peculiar to the Upper South of the period, the condemnation of private property for the development of a new dam by the Tennessee Valley Authority.
Gay's stories have been anthologized extensively, and aside from his fictional work, Gay frequently contributed essays on music to magazines such as Paste and Oxford American.
William Gay was named a 2007 USA Ford Foundation Fellow and awarded a $50,000 grant by United States Artists, a public charity that supports and promotes the work of American artists. He died on February 23, 2012, presumably of a heart attack. He was 70.