William Gay’s The Lost Country is a lyrical ballad dedicated to the denizens of Tennessee. Following protagonist and ne’er-do-well Billy Edgewater’s Hero’s Journey through back roads, back alleys, juke joints, and jail cells of 1950’s Southeast – and with Gay’s southern realism – the reader experiences what it’s like to live perpetually in the Belly of the Whale. And Edgewater justifies every pit stop (joyful and tragic) because he is, for once, doing the right thing: trying to be with his dying father.
Gay writes realistically because he came to writing later in his life; his first book was published when he was 57. His life experiences – he hung sheetrock, sold TVs, worked in a pinball factory – are seen in The Lost Country through Edgewater and a one-armed con man called Roosterfish who “would paint your barn, spray your roof for leaks, exterminate your termites, sell you what he called a magazine prescription,” but in typical charlatan fashion Rooster sprayed his version of pest control spray: river water. This scene, like all others in the book, was composed in the author’s mind during the day. He would then scribble the passages longhand in a notebook when he returned home from work. After he died in 2012, Gay left behind 12 of these notebooks, which Dzanc released as The Lost Country. Finders, keepers.
One of Gay’s strongest attributes in The Lost Country, and all of his work, is his ability to create damaged people and use them as driving forces behind his character-driven writing. Characters in The Lost Country include Roosterfish, pig farmer Lester Batts, Crippled Elmer, and Bradshaw, a miscreant who “screwed no women save the prettiest, drove no car but the fastest, held no poker hand but the highest, escaped from no situation by anything wider than a hair’s breadth.”
Here is further evidence of Gay’s uncanny ability to limn a passage featuring a damaged character:
But the storekeeper was affected with some malady, his face was inflamed and pustulate with open sores, something dread in riotous final stages. His eyes looked one step beyond dementia and as if he were not there at all … Leprous or cancerous perhaps, goitered and misshapen and proclaiming its malignancy to whatever of the world chance here.
The reader is on the opposite side of the counter pondering how long the man has to live, and more importantly how long has this man been this ill? And when Edgewater asks this pathetic, leprous person “how do I get on the highway?” he barely has enough energy to point in the direction of the road, displaying the malaise of a dying, sick man who does not care enough to genuinely worry about Edgewater’s request. Additionally, Gay writes a celebratory scene about Edgewater marrying Bradshaw’s sister Sudy, but she gets pregnant and Edgewater must deal with another form of adversity – akin to the adversity Lieutenant Frederic Henry and Catherine Barkley face in the denouement of Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms.
To establish setting, Gay includes notable brands of the era including Seven-Up, Lucky Strikes, and Maxwell House Coffee, and poignant scenes featuring appropriate archetypes:
Further there were mineral springs and the ruins of a veritable community. A post office. What seemed to have been a grocery store. Then down where mineral springs boiled out of limestone rock near a derelict hotel in opulent ruin. The hotel had been built on both sides of the stream.
A stream in literature, in most cases, symbolizes birth, but Gay uses the stream in this passage as an agent of death … death of a small community that once featured a grocery store and hotel, providing the reader with a realistic view of 1950s Tennessee.
Like his predecessors, O’Connor and McCarthy, Gay wrote about murder and violence deftly, but it is his ability to keep the focus on Billy Edgewater’s journey to be with his ailing father that propels the plot and entices the reader to turn the page. Although some passages should have been cut, The Lost Country may be considered an Americana classic. Only time will tell.
Wayne Catan teachers English Literature at Brophy College Preparatory in Phoenix. He is a Hemingway scholar and has presented papers about the author at several national and international conferences. He has degrees from Syracuse University, Mercy College, and the University of Arizona. Catan wrestled for Syracuse University where he was a three-time NCAA All-American. He was bestowed with Syracuse University’s Letterwinner of Distinction, the highest honor awarded to a former Syracuse student-athlete. He is the head wrestling coach at Brophy College Preparatory.