January 11, 2000
by Kay Kimbrough
THE LONG HOME
MacMurray & Beck, Denver, COL, 1999, $24.95.
William Gay's first novel is a powerful story of good and evil set in the mountains of Tennessee during World War II, 1943. The action that sets the plot in motion occurred in 1933: the murder of Nathan Winer by Dallas Hardin. The two men argued over Hardin's illegal whiskey still's location on the land of Winer, who, knowing he would be accused of bootlegging if it were found on his property, destroyed the still. The argument leads to a fight, and the fight ends in murder.
The story begins ten years later with Winer's son, also Nathan, and his good friend William Tell Oliver, an old man with a strong moral code that enables him to do battle with evil in spite of the necessary violence required. Oliver has lost a son; Winer has lost a father. The two men form a bond that is partly based on mutual loss and partly based on the similarities in their characters, traits that enable them to survive the lives of hard work and poverty that fate has handed them. Both are strong, determined, stoic, independent and brave.
While introducing the characters, Gay describes the setting in careful, precise and smoothly paced sentences. The style is elegant; Gay respects this land, this natural world, and pays his respect in paragraphs that recreate the landscape for readers. Weather performs like an artist trying to entertain these characters living in isolation far from concerts and museums: "The storm sometime in the night reversed its course or its brother passed for he woke in a lull of the rain, the air leaden and motionless and the night holding its breath. Then lightning came staccato and strobic, a sudden hush of dryflies and frogs, the walls of the attic imprinted with inkblack images of the trees beyond the window, an instantaneous and profound transition into wall-less night as if the lightning had incinerated the walls or had scorched the delicate tracery of leaf and vine onto the wallpaper."
The dialogue is as carefully crafted as the setting. The understated and metaphoric style of the rural mountain South is captured. Oliver tells young Nathan Winer that he can go to town for him on Saturday, explaining, "Either my legs ain't what they used to be or they keep scootin town a little farther west ever year." When Winer comments on the rain, "It's fell a flood, ain't it?", Oliver answers, "Like a cow on a flat rock." Even the villain, Dallas Hardin, speaks in premeditated statements that are sometimes funny. His humor is dark like that of Faulkner's Jason Compson, dark but clever, a witty answer to every objection anyone makes to his evil acts.
Hardin has taken over the home, the whiskey business, the wife and the daughter of Hovington, a man suffering from a terminal illness. Like Jason Compson, he thinks he has a right to anything he wants, so he just takes it. Unlike Jason, he does not justify his thievery. He simply thinks his right comes from his willingness to use force and threat of force on anyone who gets in his way. Oliver finally realizes that he must try to stop Hardin from doing more harm to innocent people, but it takes his concern for young Winer to get him to act. He knows he could be sacrificing his life if he interferes with Hardin, but he plans to stop him anyway and regrets that he did not act sooner.
Young Winer falls in love with Hovington's daughter, who is under the domination of the evil Hardin. His struggle to rescue the beautiful young girl is heroic but almost impossible. In the meantime, his mother takes up with a no-good con man, and Winer must deal with him. Winer's contempt is shown economically and fully when he is tempted by this sorry parasite: "I'm going to hit him, Winer thought. Then he thought, no, I'd have to touch him." Winer has built his character on the memories of his father, so his mother is not a primary concern in his life. She persists in believing that her husband deserted her in 1933, since no trace of him was ever found. Young Winer knows his father would never have done such a thing, and this difference continues to divide mother and son. When she leaves with the con man, Winer is probably relieved.
Winer's mother, like Pearl Hovington and Oliver's faithless wife, is not admirable. These women have no life outside the men with whom they form attachments. They move on to another man if he offers more of what they want or need. They have been born into a world where moving on is their only choice, their only freedom. Finally, Pearl Hovington does act, does make an effort to rescue her daughter from Hardin. Gay might appear to be condemning women as a class, but he could be simply telling the truth about their lives at this time in this place.
Minor characters and sub-plots come into the story, offering comic relief or good or bad examples of behavior to contrast with that of the main characters. The comic relief is funny, and the good examples of human kindness are touching. They do not detract from the plot; these additions give the novel depth and breadth, adding to the completeness of Gay's fictional world.
This novel is a timeless story told in an original voice. It is exceptionally fine in every element: plot, characters, style, dialogue. The pace is exactly right, adding the pleasure of suspense to the pleasure of the writing. A uniquely American time and place have been captured in a story that is certain to be a classic of American literature.