Tuesday, September 28, 2010

The Long Home

William Faulkner and Cormac McCarthy loom over Southern fiction like mountains over plains. Any aspiring writer is inevitably compared to those two, and it's a shame. I absolutely adore Southern fiction, especially Southern Gothic. There's something so haunting and mythical about the Deep South. I only stumbled upon William Gay, and after reading a bunch of reviews, I decided to give his first novel a try, called The Long Home.

Dallas Hardin came out of nowhere to this sleepy area of Tennessee and promptly installed himself in the home of a dying man. From there, he started bootlegging and buying the local politicos. Nathan Winer, a local teen, starts working for Hardin, building a honkytonk. Unbeknownst to Winer, Hardin killed his father, and so begins a strange journey for Winer to avenge his father's death and rid the county of Hardin's presence.

The very first scene in the novel is a hole opening up in the ground, with fire and brimstone issuing forth. This sets the apocalyptic and biblical tone of the novel. The immediate comparison that my mind made was McCarthy, unfortunately. Gay certainly owes a huge debt to McCarthy, let’s not understate that, but he makes The Long Home his own.

This is a beautifully written novel about growing up, becoming a man, being in love, and getting into fights. Gay’s prose is gorgeous most of the time, even if he indulges a little in too many word mash-ups (like both Faulkner and McCarthy do). His dialogue is good, with very few clich├ęs or tired phrases. Even when an idiom is used, Gay finds a way to twist it to the specific character speaking it (these idioms are rare, thankfully).

If a complaint could be made, it’s that Gay doesn’t trust enough in the power of his protagonist. I would have loved if Nathan Winer had just done the things he did rather than think about them, or talk about them. Any time I was offered a glimpse into his psyche, it was something I had already gleaned from Gay’s strong storytelling and plotting skills. The characters are strong enough to stand on their own, without Gay having to hold the hand of the reader. It’s very rare that I get to grumble about such a thing.

This novel could have certainly been set in another place, in another time, but The Long Home has the confidence to portray this setting as an atmosphere, instead of just simply a place where the plot unfurls. The environment, with its ever-changing weather, its oppressive forests, its vast skies, it sets a tone for the novel, and it always suits what’s happening.

Confidence and assurance are the primary traits that I think of about The Long Home. Even though this is a debut novel, it has the feel of a story told a million time, practiced and edited until it unfolds rather well. Other than a tendency to tell rather than show in regards to the protagonist, I really enjoyed this novel. Although it’s phrase overworked until it’s creaky, I must say this is a worthy heir to the legacy built by McCarthy. I look forward to reading Gay’s other novels.

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