A young drifter odysseys through the gothic menagerie that is rural Tennessee in Gay’s (Little Sister Death, 2015, etc.) posthumously published novel.
We meet Billy Edgewater in Memphis in 1955. He’s in his early 20s, recently discharged from the Navy, and on his way home to eastern Tennessee, where his father lies dying. But for Edgewater, “a fugitive of order” who finds—or brings—disaster wherever he goes, this is no straightforward voyage; things just seem to get in the way, and decisions he barely makes have life-altering consequences. He enters a bar, is attacked by a drunk, and then is arrested for it. Hitchhiking, he is wooed by “the comfort of the upholstery” and finds himself carried heinously off course. He gets a ride with a one-armed con man named Roosterfish (perhaps the most delightful character in a novel full of them), with whom he conducts spurious bug exterminations (the poison they spray isn’t poison) and paints barn roofs with “a mixture of cheap re-refined motor oil” that resembles paint but will wash off in the rain. He falls in with the unforgettable Buddy Bradshaw, an “involuntary refugee from the American dream” who looks “like a farm boy’s fantasy of what a cheap gigolo must be.” Throughout, Gay’s midcentury Tennessee is a realm of bad weather and small-town lowlifes, vagrancy laws, and bootleg liquor; every man is a drunk, alternately listless and lustful and violent; every woman is defined by the use she makes (or once made, or will make) of her body. Yet there is humor in this bleakness, and it bubbles up from the same human springs as the cruelty and violence. And readers will be wooed (or perhaps frustrated) by the rich (or overwritten) language characteristic of Southern gothic writers: For example, a river, to Edgewater, seems “some lost highway of the undone, accommodating not wayfarers like themselves but debris and artifacts jettisoned by souls lost upon it, empty gestures of appeasement, offerings to a god not listening anymore.”
Italicized flashbacks, stream-of-consciousness interludes, infidelities, prison breaks, murderous revenge, biblical language, and a deep kinship between the land and its inhabitants—Gay’s novel is full-on Southern gothic and will delight fans of the genre.