Six years after the death of Tennessee writer William Gay, comes The Lost Country, a new novel by him from a manuscript that was found in the attic of his ex-wife’s house. Lots of people knew this book was out there someplace, William himself had read pieces of it aloud at literary events. But nobody had found it. At least not all of it.
Soon after William’s death, I was given by his children some 250-odd manuscript pages to read. Definitely pages from The Lost Country. They were written longhand. William handwrote all his first drafts, then typed and revised them. I was editor-in-chief then for MacAdam-Cage Publishing in San Francisco, and the book was under contract there. I would read the manuscript and report to the publisher, David Poindexter. It would be a great pleasure for me, mixed with some work squinting at his tiny script, and turning the pages this way and that for what was written in the margins.
I borrowed a beach house in Gulf Shores, and went there to see what my dear friend William had written. When I came across the paragraph that included the phrase that was the title of the work, I couldn’t read another line for a day. Here’s that small piece of the genius talent from this man who never went to college, never took a writing class, and worked as a sheetrock hanger while writing these lines. I cannot fathom the brilliance of literary style William acquired all on his own only from reading the books of other great Southern writers.
“After she’d gone in he sat for a time just listening, the croaking of the frogs diminished by the enormous silence of the night. A pale sliver of moon had risen, the bottom edge poised to cup water, a dry barren moon. By its meager light the fields of cotton looked silver, a vast expanse faintly luminous, like St. Elmo’s fire at sea. Earlier there were lights from other shanties but they had gone down to darkness now, and he could see the moment it happened, the face leaned to the lampglobe and the harsh expulsion of breath and the sudden darkness that smells of kerosene and the slow creak of the bedsprings, and the murmurs, the whispers, all over the sleeping land, demurred, passions spent and passions spurned in the temporary dark while the earth tilts inexorably toward the waiting sun. As if he’d be clarified in the crucible of crazed austerity, made whole by the innocence of love, or at least cauterized where the bleeding was coming from. The nights were never long enough, the night would not replace what the day had stolen. In all their beds in all their shotgun shacks they lay burled against the quilts in agonized crucifixion, their troubled dreams biased by the enormous tug of gravity from the invisible and lost country they are come from.”
I hated to report the awful disappointing news to the publisher that the manuscript was incomplete. I told David there were likely twice as many pages missing. And he died not seeing this completed novel come to print, his publishing company closed down after his passing.
The editor of the publishing house, Dzanc Books, that will release the novel on July 10th also worked for David, and she was, in fact, copy editor on my fourth novel, The Widow and the Tree. So when Michelle Dotter asked me would I support the book in William’s absence, I said yes, of course. I wrote the foreword, and I will tour around the South with the novel this summer and fall.
This month, I will be in Birmingham at Alabama Booksmith, Friday, July 7, at 5 pm; in Jackson, Mississippi at Lemuria Books on July 10; and Page & Palette in Fairhope on Tuesday, July 17, at 6 pm. I’ll report the rest of the tour in those months I’m on the road. Please come out and become acquainted with this beautiful book.