Strong Words had enthusiastic feelings for the late William Gay even before sampling a single sentence of this haunted and suspicious Southern meander.
The fact that he wasn’t published until his late fifties is like a free tank of inspiration for anyone who hasn’t yet got round to sharing their first novel with the world.
As a postscript to the new Faber edition of The Lost Country explains, this novel took an even more leisurely route to market than Gay’s debut, given that he died in 2012 before turning in a final manuscript, leaving his adepts to piece it together from notebooks, a synopsis and only occasionally numbered pages of typescript.
It was published earlier this year by Dzanc in the US, and is now available for your pleasure in a beautifully designed paperback edition by Faber.
Antique Roadshow-type preamble done , the book itself concerns the directionless ramblings of one Billy Edgewater, late of the US Navy, who has returned to Tennessee, theoretically at least, to attend the bedside of his ailing father.
This family obligation though, would appear towards the bottom of a list of priorities were he to own such a document.
The enigmatic Edgewater seems content to head wherever life takes him, a path which makes regular stops at rural jailhouses, given his unfortunate habit of encountering red-faced drunks and angry bumpkins who are keen to make something of it.
His route also runs parallel at times with some quite extraordinary grotesques, including the one-armed hustler Roosterfish, who can barely pass a house without piecing together a scheme of some sort to extort value, whether selling a housewife a bogus bible or “painting” a barn roof with bogus product – slapping it on as fast as they can before an imminent thunderstorm can wash it all off again.
His other repeat companion is the charmless Bradshaw, an operator of much more limited imagination, whose principal sources of income are stealing money from his silent and embittered mother, and stealing moonshine whiskey from dealers to whom he had sold it hours earlier.
Somehow they manage to scratch an existence to propel them at low speed across the inhospitable landscape, just about enough to keep them in cigarettes and beer, but if the first step on the hierarchy of needs is “food, water, warmth, rest”, and they only occasionally tick those boxes, you get a sense of how just how close to basic survival they are cutting it.
(Anyone tempted to employ the scandalously overused adjective “hardscrabble” in their own writing should refer back to “The Lost Country” and use Gay’s standard of hardship as a benchmark.)
Yet for all this aimless wandering on a minimum of calories through decrepit settlements and an uncompromising countryside, the language is rich, especially the dialogue that carries a threat of menace in every folkloric utterance, and the descriptions of dark and indifferent nature, which whether hot or cold, wet or dry, day or night, is never able to spare a crumb of comfort for those travelling through it.
This is spellbinding stuff, perfect for anyone who enjoyed reading Faulkner but wished he wouldn’t be so obtuse and suspected even he didn’t know quite what he was on about half the time.
And delight of delights, if the critics are to be believed, this isn’t even William Gay’s best.
The Lost Country, by William Gay. Faber & Faber, £14.99