The Long Homeby William Gay
In a literary voice that is both original and powerfully unsettling, William Gay tells the story of Nathan Winer, a young and headstrong Tennessee carpenter who lost his father years ago to a human evil that is greater and closer at hand than any the boy can imagine - until he learns of it first-hand. Gay's remarkable debut novel, The Long Home, is also the/i>… See more details below
In a literary voice that is both original and powerfully unsettling, William Gay tells the story of Nathan Winer, a young and headstrong Tennessee carpenter who lost his father years ago to a human evil that is greater and closer at hand than any the boy can imagine - until he learns of it first-hand. Gay's remarkable debut novel, The Long Home, is also the story of Amber Rose, a beautiful young woman forced to live beneath that evil who recognizes even as a child that Nathan is her first and last chance at escape. And it is the story of William Tell Oliver, a solitary old man who watches the growing evil from the dark woods and adds to his own weathered guilt by failing to do anything about it.
Set in rural Tennessee in the 1940s, The Long Home will bring to mind once again the greatest Southern novelists and will haunt the reader with its sense of solitude , longing, and the deliverance that is always just out of reach.
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Read an Excerpt
William Tell Oliver came out of the woods into a field the Mormons used to tend but which was now grown over in sassafras and cedar, the slim saplings of sassafras thick as his arm, but not as thick as his arms had once been, he reminded himself, he was old and his flesh had fallen away some. He didn't dwell on that though, reckoned himself lucky to still be around.
Oliver was carrying a floursack weighted with ginseng across his shoulder. His blue shirt was darkened in the back and plastered to his shoulders with sweat. It had been still in the thick summer woods and no breeze stirred there, but here where the field ran downhill in a stumbling landscape of brush and stone a wind blew out of the west and tilted the saplings and ran through the leaves bright as quicksilver.
He halted in the shade of a cottonwood and unslung the bag and dropped it and looked up, shading his eyes. The sky was a hot cobalt blue but westward darkened in indelible increments to a lusterless metallic gray, the color he imagined the seas might turn before a storm. A few birds passed beneath him with shrill, broken cries as if they divined some threat implicit in the weather and he thought it might blow up a rain.
Standing so with his upper face in shadow, the full weight of the sun fell on his chin and throat, skin so weathered and browned by the sun and aged by the ceaseless traffic of the years that it had taken on the texture of some material finally immutable to the changes of the weather, as if it had been evolving all his life andultimately become a kind of whang leather impervious to time or elements, corded, seamed, and scarred, pulled tight over the cheekbones and blade of nose that gave his face an Indian cast.
He hunkered in a shady spot to rest. He had been smoking his pipe in the woods to keep the gnats away from his eyes and now he took the pipe from his mouth and knocked the fire from it against a stone, taking care that each spark was extinguished, for the woods and fields had been dry since spring and he was a man of a thousand small cautions.
Below him Hovington's tin roof baking in the sun, the bright stream passing beneath the road, the road itself a meandering red slash bleeding through a world of green. He sat quietly, getting his breath back, an old man watching with infinite patience, no more of hurry about him than you would find in a tree or a stone. The place was changing. A new structure had been built of concrete blocks and its whitewash gleamed harshly. Newlooking light poles followed the road now, electrical wires strung to the end of the house.
Yet some old strain of second sight from Celtic forebears saw in the lineaments of house and barn, the gradations of hill and slope and road, something more profound, some subtle aberration of each line, some infinitesimal deviation from the norm that separated this place from any other, made it sacred, or cursed: the Mormons had proclaimed it sacred, built their church there. The whitecaps had cursed it with their annihilation, with the rows of graves their descendants would just as soon the woods grew over.
All his life he'd heard folks say they saw lights here at night, they called them mineral lights, corpse candles. Eerie balls of phosphorescence rising over money the Mormons had buried. Oliver doubted there was any money buried or ever had been, but he smiled when he remembered Lyle Hodges. Hodges had owned the place before Hovington bought it for the back taxes and Oliver guessed that Hodges had dug up every square foot of the place malleable with pick and shovel. It had been his vocation, his trade, he went out with his tools every morning the weather permitted, working at it the way a man might work a farm or a job in a factory, studying by night his queer homemade maps and obscure markings, digging like a demented archaeologist searching for the regimen and order of elder times while his wife and son tried to coax crops from soil that would ultimately produce only untaxed whiskey. Even now Oliver could have found the old man's brush-covered mounds of earth, pockmarked craters like halffinished graves abandoned in hasty flight. Hodges worked on until his death, his dreams sustaining him. Oliver reckoned there was nothing much wrong with that though his own dreams had not weathered as well.
In the upper left quadrant of his vision a car appeared towing a rising wake of white dust along the drybaked road. As it drew nearer he recognized it as a police car and some intimation of drama touched him, the prelude to some story, and he seated himself to watch.
It was a silent tableau that unfolded below him: the car stopped in Hovington's (Hardin's, he thought) frontyard and a deputy named Cooper got out, stood for a moment in the timeless way cops stand, sauntered to the porch with an air halfarrogant and halfdeferential. Hardin came out. They stood talking for a minute while the deputy gestured excitedly with his hands, apparently conveying some information of importance though no word of it reached the old man's ears.
He didn't need it anyway. Hardin took out his wallet and counted money onto Cooper's waiting palm. Well, well, Oliver thought, we just might see a show here. Oliver was never surprised anymore and sometimes thought he'd seen all there was to see, but nonetheless he remained beneath the cottonwood watching. He took a flat pint bottle out of his pocket and rinsed his mouth with the tepid water, spat, drank. He thought vaguely of the cold spring behind his house but he was loath to leave.
The police car left. Almost immediately the hollow was vibratory with activity, a hornet's nest slammed with a stone: Hardin loped across the yard to the sleek black Packard and cranked it and backed it to the porch's edge, got out with the motor running, all four doors standing open, and unlocked the turtledeck and raised it. Pearl came through the door of the house with a case of halfpints, stowed it in the car. Hovington's daughter, her long dark hair swinging with her motion, hurried out with a cardboard carton. Above the throaty idling of the Packard he could hear the almost constant slap of the screendoor and occasional voices, Hardin giving orders.
The back door sprang open and two uniformed soldiers and a woman staggered into the yard and across it toward the thickening greenery around the abyss. One of the soldiers stumbled and fell into the branch and arose swearing and bright shards of the woman's laughter fell on Oliver's ears like a gift from a dubious source.
When the car was loaded Hardin and the girl got in and the car pulled away, going east, away from town.
After awhile the breeze tilted the sedge toward him and dried the sweat on his face to a salty glaze he could feel drawing and tightening on his skin. Swift clouds chased shadows across the field. Where a bottleneck of sky showed between the hills, dark and light clouds lay in alternating layers like varicolored liquid that would not mix. The air had chilled and he got up stiffly and took up his homecarved walking stick. As he arose he saw like some by-product of imminent storm three cars pacing themselves along the roadbed, the sheriff and two cars of the Tennessee state troopers. As they wheeled into the yard there was a brief squall from the siren and they got out and started walking rapidly toward the house. Thunder rumbled, faint and far off. Pearl came out and stood leaning against a porch support with her arms crossed, just waiting with an air of stoic forbearance. The old man shook his head and grinned to himself before he turned back toward the woods.
The trees were in motion, the wind murmuring baleful in the clashing branches. Past their waving green tops what he could see of the sky was lowering, the air taking on a quality of depth, of weight, a world under roiled water. He moved through a heightened reality now, imbued with the urgency the air conveyed. Lightning flared silent and sourceless, eerily phosphorescent in the unreal green of the woods, and he quickened his steps, his movement stiff and jerky, a comic figure resurrected from an oldtime film.
He turned down a footpath, slowing his descent tree to tree, and warily crossed a barbed-wire fence into a flat bottom tangled with weeds and went up a path past his corncrib. As he came out into the barnlot he could see beyond the worn gray of his house the rain begin, past the pale dust of the road where a pastel field stretched to a darker border of woods he saw the horizon dissolve in a slanting wash of rain and the jerk of weeds advancing toward him portentous with motion.
He went hastily in the back door just as the first drops were singing on the tin. The room was dark and cluttered, shapes softly emergent like benign familiars from the cool ectoplasm of shadow. He emptied the floursack of ginseng into an enamel washpan and turned to the stove, took from the warming closet a pan of beans. He dipped some onto a plate and took bread left from breakfast and set the plate atop the stove reservoir and filled an earthenware mug with cold coffee. He took up the plate again and with it and the coffee crossed from the long kitchen to the living room, stepping down where the level changed, through a room almost as dark as the kitchen, mismatched oddments of furniture, random debris beached by time.
He kicked open the latchless screen door and crossed onto the porch. The noise intensified, the porch was unceiled and the drumming on the tin precluded any other sound, even the wind whipping the trees seemed to do so in silence.
He ate in a swing hung by lengths of chain from the porch rafters and set the plate by his foot on the board floor when he had finished and slowly drank the coffee, staring past the earth yard where the road had already gone to mud. The rain fell in sheets, sluicing off the unguttered tin, dissipated to spray the wind took. Thunder boomed almost directly above him, a few scattered pellets of hail fell and lay gleaming white as pearls in the mud. The trees were in constant motion, all the world he could see was animate. The chaff-filled air seemed electric, unreal.
For a time he sat and listened to the soporific rain and when he had drunk the coffee he set the cup atop the plate. The end of the swing nearest the yard darkened with moisture and drops of spray dampened the old man's clothes but he did not move. The frenzy of the storm subsided and the intensity of the rain leveled off, the woods across the fields gained clarity like a scene viewed through clearing glass or turmoil constrained to stillness. He grew drowsy. Finally he slept, scarred big-knuckled hands resting on his knees, head leaning against a length of taut chain. From time to time his eyelids quivered with the progression of bits of dreams, dreams of when he was young, fiery dreams of iron furnaces and trains, dreams of walls and bars and time built as carefully as a mason might erect a structure in stone.
He awoke late in the afternoon, a dull drizzle leaden on the roof and the air smelling fresher and cooler. He took out a pouch of roughcut tobacco and began to pack his pipe. He lit it with a kitchen match and sat bemusedly smoking and letting the balance of the afternoon wear itself away. He had the air of someone used to waiting.
All there was to show he had ever farmed was a motley collection of old equipment about the yard, castoff discs and haymowers and archaic looking scratchers like something abandoned by early man, all slowly dissolving into rust. It had been years but still he felt some affinity for the earth and the clocking of its seasons. There was something reassuring about the rain, what grass there was in his yard had been dying in circular patches and even the trees had begun to look stunned and wilted. He'd secretly suspected some turning away of the gods, unconcern or incompetence in high places.
Between four and five o'clock the Winer boy came by and Oliver was still out to watch him pass. In actual fact he had been awaiting him. Time sometimes weighed heavily on his hands and there were weeks that passed when the only words he spoke were to young Nathan Winer. He watched the boy approach with obvious affection. He had had a son once himself and though the boy, had he lived, would be in middle age, he always thought of him as being Winer's age.
When Winer was parallel with the house Oliver hailed him: "Boy, you better get in out of this mess."
Winer was sodden, his outsize shirt and pants flopping and his hair plastered thinly to his skull. He obediently turned from the road and crossed the yard to the porch's edge. In places the mud was shoemouth deep and sucked at his feet.
"Get in here out of that."
"It's too late now," Winer said. "I don't see how I can get any wetter." But he stepped onto the porch and leaned against a support. He pushed his hair back out of his face and wiped his eyes on a dripping sleeve. There was a curiously temporary look about him as if he must soon be off. "It's fell a flood, ain't it?"
"Like a cow on a flat rock," Oliver agreed. "You been workin out in this today?"
"No, we've been inside cleaning out the poultry house. Just shoveling it up and loading trailers."
"Looks like old man Weiss could've run you home."
"I guess he just didn't think of it."
"He'd've thought of it if he had to walk two miles through it," the old man said. "You want somethin dry to put on?"
"It'd just get wet again. Anyway, it don't bother me. I don't reckon I'll melt, I never have."
"Still, it wouldn't've hurt him. I had a car I'd take ye myself but I never owned one."
"I don't mind walking."
"Well, I don't reckon it hurts a man, I've done it all my life. Or so far anyway. You want me to heat up the coffee?"
"I got to get on. It's getting dark early tonight. Cooled off some too."
"Maybe a man can sleep then," Oliver said. "Here lately it's been so hot I ain't been able to get to sleep till two or three o'clock in the mornin."
The boy arose. "Go with me."
"I guess I better set around here." Oliver seemed to be scrutinizing the boy's feet. He got up stiffly from the swing. "I got somethin I been aimin to give you if it wouldn't make you mad. You reckon it would?"
"I doubt it." Winer grinned.
The old man went back into the house, Winer following. "I bought me a pair of shoes through the mail a year or two ago and then couldn't wear em. I expect my feet's about through growin too. I been kindly keepin a eye on them feet of yourn and I believe they've growed a size or two since spring."
They passed through the front room past the dead stove the old man kept up winter and summer and stepped down into the long, narrow lean-to that served as the old man's bedroom. The room was dark and lowceilinged and Winer stood uncertainly for a moment letting his eyes adjust to the cloistered gloom and watching shapes gain outline and solidity, ephemeral shapes halftransient lock themselves into recognizable form: an old chifforobe whose dusty mirror presented him with a warped sideshow representation of himself, an old rustcolored iron bed, boxes stacked on boxes nigh to the ceiling, old lavender and gray Sunday dresses fading and shapeless on their hangers, faint scent of lemon verbena out of some other time, or life. Oliver was fetching up from the bottom of the chifforobe a newlooking pair of black hightop shoes, freshly removed from their box and tissue paper like some memento covertly hidden from time.
"Here we go," the old man said. He handed the shoes to Winer. "Hold em up agin ye shoes there and measure em."
"I believe they'll fit. How much do you want for them?"
"I'll pay you."
"Take em on. They ain't doin nobody no good settin here. I don't need em noway."
"I'd rather pay you."
"I may get you to sell my sang for me some Saturday. Either my legs ain't what they used to be or they keep scootin town a little farther west ever year."
After the fetid room the air outside seemed fresh and clean. With the shoebox turned upside down and tucked under his arm Winer stepped into the rain. He crossed under the pear tree through the spate of discarded scrapiron that lay like mutant fruit and onto the road. Oliver sat back in the swing. The chain creaked, tautened. He watched Winer out of sight beyond the hedgerow and then as he reappeared far down the road where the hedge broke in a curve of the road and the road ascended. The road crossed the creek there and he could hazily see the wooden bridge. Then dusk moved in unnoticed with the rain and a little wind blew chill out of the west and stung him with spray. Winer had disappeared in blue dusk. Dark gathered in the shadow of the pear tree and crept toward the porch and Oliver arose and went into the house to light his lamp.
These evenings Winer's mother would be in the front room awaiting him and she would be sitting motionless in the rocker before the dead fireplace. Tonight she had the lamp lit on the mantle and she was at the repair of some garment made soft and nigh shapeless by repeated washing and she did not even look up when he came in. A sallow young-old woman whose highcheeked face looked somehow androgynous, nunlike perhaps or resembling an ascetic priest at some vague rites. Coronaed by the yellow halo of light she looked unreal, a ghost at some vigil, faded sepia image on a funeral-home calendar.
His room was in the attic and he climbed a ladder to it, she did not even ask him about the box. He stowed the shoes in a wooden trunk then sat at the foot of his bed a moment looking at them. He figured Oliver could wear them. He sat staring at them in a curiously hopeless way and then closed the lid.
The loft room was unbearable during the summer and Winer had taken to sleeping wherever the heat would let him. Tonight the window was open and the attic cool. Winds had blown the curtains off and they lay on the floor, gauzy specters twice lifeless and crumpled. The floor was damp with blown rain. The roof formed an A above him, with the tin that comprised both roof and ceiling pockmarked by nails that had missed the rafter, and when he laid a hand against the tin it felt cold and damp. He changed hurriedly into dry clothes and went back down the ladder.
She seemed long taken by some vow of silence or a malfunction of whatever produced words or inspired them. He didn't speak either. He knew she would talk sooner or later, conquer momentarily whatever had closed her lips, anger or simply boredom with one day the same as any other.
She'd left his plate on the table with another upturned over it and he lit the kitchen lamp and sat down to eat. He ate hurriedly, seemingly without tasting the food, fried okra and greenbeans and new potatoes, fending away onehanded moths and bugs drawn by the light or driven in the open window by the windy rain. A candlefly guttered in the quaking heat above the globe, plummeted to the orange flame, convulsed, died in silent white agony behind the hot glass.
She was standing in the door watching him eat. "Did he pay you?"
"Well," he said, "it's Friday. He pays off every Friday." He pushed his plate back.
"I keep lookin for him to cheat you. You just a boy and him in a position to take advantage."
It was an old argument and he didn't care to reopen it. "If he does it's just me," he said. He arose, fumbling the money from his pocket, offered it to her. She took it wordlessly, he watched it disappear into her apron pocket.
When he had first gone to work for Weiss she had raged against it: a boy shouldn't have to do a man's work for a boy's pay. All she said now was that if he had a proper father to look after him things would never have come to this. To such a desperate pass. She looked at him now as if all this was some contrivance of his own.
"Just walk out and pull the door to," she said with an old bitterness. "Gone and never a word to nobody."
That was an old argument too and if he had any words of refutation now he kept them to himself. When he was younger and easier to hurt he had said, "He never run off."
She had gestured around the room with an expansive arm movement halftheatrical and halfdemented and shouted, "Well, do you see him anywhere? You reckon he's behind the door playin a prank on you?"
He had just watched her with eyes that were no longer child's eyes and he had had nothing to say.
When he went up the ladder at bedtime the rain still fell and it was still cool. Feeling carefully in the dark he found a box of matches and lit the lamp and then sorted through books in a cardboard box under his bed. The bedclothes were slightly damp but after the day's heat they felt comfortable. He lay down, positioned the lamp, and began to read, barely hearing the sibilant murmur on the tin. After a time he heard her come up the ladder and cross the floor with a kind of ratlike stealth.
"What are you doin in there?"
"It's gettin late," she said. "You blow out that lamp. Coaloil's high."
"All right," he said. He got up and took a quilt from the bed and laid it across the bottom of the door to block the light. He could hear her, satisfied, retreating back down the ladder. He read awhile longer and then blew out the lamp.
He lay for a time in a weary torpor, aware that he was in bed and yet still feeling the endless motions of the shovel, scoop and throw, scoop and throw. In another part of his mind he was still occupied with acquaintances real as the denizens who peopled his day, corporeal as Weiss or William Tell Oliver. He felt a vague anticipation of Saturday and town and at length he fell asleep.
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. Then gone in abrupt negation to a world of total dark so that the room and its austere furnishings seemed sucked down into some maelstrom and consigned to utter nothingness, to the antithesis of being, then thunder came muttering balefully down the wall of ridges and a cool wind was at the trees, the calm eddying away like roiled water.
He could not sleep. He stood at the window for a time, watching across the bottom where the storm was forming, banked lightning pulsing and limning the landscape with a black-and-silver nightmare quality.
Downstairs the windows were raised to the cool night and the house was a house of the winds. It seemed enormous and barren in the dark, something abandoned to the windy reaches of space. He crossed the porch and went into the yard. The wind was stronger now and wove against the heavens a patternless and everchanging tapestry. Where three trees formed a triangle he had built a treehouse from old salvaged bridgetimbers and he climbed the ladder to it. The trees leaned their disparate ways, the treehouse creaking and popping, the branches above him a steady rushing sound.
It still was not raining. The storm passed to the south, the sky in a constant flux of electricity, sleek metallic clouds burnished orange and pink. Ovoid and tracking west they look composed of some gleaming alloy, a vast armada visiting upon the world a plague of fire then fleeing on to some conjunction of all the world's storms.
The treehouse rocked and yawed and here in the dark it seemed a craft adrift in roughening water, its decks tilting and sliding to the caprice of the seas, sails shredded and mast tilted and clocking like a gyroscope gone berserk: beyond it the night was unstarred, nothing for a mariner's glass to fix upon.
Rain came like an afterthought. A belated kindness rapping at the makeshift roof. Resting on the deck with his head against the listing bulkhead he watched through the cracks the lightning grow faint and fainter, the thunder dimming away, muted by the rain. Winer half dozed, listening to the rain intensifying, spreading surcease across the dark and sleeping land.
William Tell Oliver awoke sometime in the night. The storm had passed and smoothed out to a steady downpour with an air of permanence about it. He went back to sleep and when he arose at five it was still raining. Day came halfheartedly to a grim and sunless world. It kept raining all day.
Meet the Author
Born in Tennessee in 1941, William Gay was a construction worker who didn’t begin publishing until well into his fifties. His works include, The Long Home, Provinces of Night, I Hate to See That Evening Sun Go Down, Wittgenstein’s Lolita, and Twilight. His work has been adapted for the screen twice, That Evening Sun (2009) and Bloodworth (2010). Most recently, his debut novel has been optioned for film. He died in 2012.
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I found this e-book to have too many typos to enjoy. I will buy a hard copy. When I spend as much money for an e-book as I would on a copy to hold in my hands, I expect the same quality.
William Gay is an amazing writer but This book is so full of errors that it is difficult to read. Obviously the transition from book to eBook didn’t go well. Missing letters and punctuation (and probably whole words and sentences) make this a very difficult disjointed read. Doesn’t anybody proofread the eBook conversion?
This guy can write! Out of no where and on the radar screen. Very reminiscent of Faulkner, but not forced, very natural.