STORIES FROM THE ATTIC, previously unpublished work by William Gay, reviewed by Dawn Major

After William Gay’s passing in 2012 a mountain of unpublished work was discovered and Team Gay—a group of artists, authors, professors, scholars, basically uber fans— was formed. I came into the picture while writing my master thesis in 2016 and I reached out to the archive for more in-depth information on Gay’s writing. After I graduated, I couldn’t let go of William Gay, and I became part of Team Gay. The team has published four novels and now this final collection, Stories from the Attic—an apt title as some of his works were actually discovered in an attic where Gay was living while raising his family. Publishing Gay’s work has been challenging since it was written in Gay’s idiosyncratic scrawling longhand and had to be transcribed. Other stories had to be hunted down including work that was stolen from his trailer and later recovered by the lead archivist, Michael White. Dzanc Books has come forward to publish Stories from the Attic; Dzanc was there at the very beginning when they published Gay’s first posthumous novel, Little Sister Death and then his major work The Lost Country. Come this June 2022 with the publication of Stories from the Attic the end of the road has finally arrived.

The 348-page collection consists of short stories, memoirs, and a few fragments from work in progress when he died, and is rounded out with a roundtable discussion with the members from Team Gay. All of the short stories other than one, “The Dream,” have never been published and “The Dream” was not widely circulated. While the team was focused on publishing unpublished work, thematically, the short stories follow a similar plot pattern: a young male protagonist hard on his luck comes across some beautiful unattainable woman who he believes, if he only can possess, will change his life. Tidewater in “Tidewater’s Eden” observes his new wife, Jasmine Morton, as a goddess, an immortal being:

Sleeping, she would be dappled by morning light … the alabaster mounds of her breasts, incredible soft, cherry-teated, were shrines to some esoteric ancient religion. Light teased in the faint down at the nipples, the hair at the base of her stomach, the faint blue veins that metronomed in her throat, as if light were some alchemy transforming her before his eyes. He would touch her gently, as if unsure of her corporeality …

The antagonist is usually a crone like matriarch who is the grandmother or mother who stands in the way of the male’s goals. She is cunning, always one step ahead of the male protagonist until she isn’t and the male swoops in tricking his love into marriage or otherwise leaving the matriarch. He may make good on getting a job and setting up a home, but eventually he goes back to his old aimless ways of wandering and drinking and ultimately loses the woman. This is a common subplot in Gay’s novels. Gay’s work tends to be part autobiographical and certainly he faced similar problems maintaining steady work. He considered writing his true profession and would work just enough to pay the bills and quit to go back to his writing. That sort of behavior didn’t bode well for keeping a wife and those struggles are articulated through his male characters.

If it isn’t a woman, it’s some other unfeasible want. For Gay who grew up as poor as his male protagonists it’s easy to imagine the sense of wanting his characters exhibit. In “Nighttime Awakening,” Clay desires an old ’57 Buick that doesn’t run. The Buick is a symbol of someone who is going somewhere. For Clay, who lost his daughter to the county authorities, he believes the Buick will bring his daughter back. Yet another crone archetype, the owner of the Buick, Mrs. Tippitt, thwarts his efforts. In “The Ascension of Pepper Yates,” Yates equates a deputy position as a rise in social standing: “He was carrying a plastic bag containing a city policeman’s uniform as reverently as if it were the Shroud of Turin and every few feet he would stop and look at it.” There’s always a sense in Gay’s work of reaching for something inaccessible. The characters go to great lengths to get what they want—they aren’t above thievery—and many of the escapades, as in the case of Pepper Yates and Clay, are simply hilarious. And of course, that compulsion in Gay’s characters is analogous with Gay’s compulsion to write, his desire to get published also seemingly unreachable, as he didn’t start getting published or gain notoriety until his late fifties after a lifetime of writing.

We will recognize Gay’s favorite settings and some of his go-to characters from previous novels and short stories. Gay often returned to a favorite character, like Sheriff Bellwether and Deputy Garrison, and the bootlegger, Itchy Mama. But Gay was also fond of specific names and sometimes used the same name for a character even though they were not the same character across his canon. Yates in the novel, Fugitives of the Heart (published by Livingston Press, 2021), should not be confused with the Pepper Yates in the first story of this collection, “The Ascension of Pepper Yates.” Stoneburner from the piece, “Stoneburner in Love,” may be an earlier, younger version that left town, became a detective, and then eventually returned to town older and world-weary to become John Stoneburner from the novel, Stoneburner.

In terms of setting, the stories and fragments take place in familiar locations such as the town of Ackerman’s Field, the Harrikin, Gay’s or haunted forest, the infamous honkytonk, Goblin’s Knob, in poolhalls, beer joints, and bootlegger’s homes, in drive-in theatres, essentially Gay’s tried and true rural landscape of Middle Tennessee. Gay begins with the setting and works his characters around place. He, himself, was intimately connected to the land where he was born, raised children, lived and died. The cover image on Stories from the Attic of a dilapidated barn is one of many paintings Gay painted during his lifetime. Gay wanted to use his artwork on his covers, but typically publishers used their own designers. Team Gay largely fulfilled Gay’s wishes and has since used his artwork on three novels and this collection. Nothing was more personal than setting for Gay and that is evidenced by the attention he paid to describing the natural environment his characters inhabited and the images found in his art.

The decision to publish the fragments was not taken lightly by the team. Ultimately, it was determined that the fragments were too valuable to leave in the dark tucked away in the archive. Not only do we get a peek into Gay’s experimentation with varying perspectives but we also gain insight into the evolution of his characters. And of course, the fragments are simply enjoyable to read and offer more of Gay’s beautiful lyrical prose as in “The Trace,” where Gay describes the timelessness of the nighttime sky and the perseverance of nature:

It did not rain and a malign heat clung on resistant as the plague. Crops died in the field. and in they’d plunge in blackness halfway across the sky leaving just the streak they’d made burning on his retinas and he [Saul] wondered where they went when they did that. There was no obstruction, no horizon, just the limitless enigma of the night and they moved like fire focused to a fine line of unreckonable intensity and abruptly guttered like a candle in the rain.

Perhaps it was controversial to publish pieces of work-in-progress, but the alternative would mean the general reading public would lose out.

The incomplete novel, “The Trace,” has its own jaded history. When Gay returned home after a literary conference, the contents of his trailer was ransacked and his novel set on the Natchez Trace was stolen. Sonny Brewer, when interviewed by Lemuria about the novel, The Lost Country, said Gay had a contract to publish at McAdam Cage where Brewer was editor-in-chief, and when Brewer reviewed the handwritten drafts that were recovered after Gay’s death Brewer determined that the 250 pages of the manuscript that had been found were not the complete novel. The remaining pages were only found years later in an attic by Michael White and published by Dzanc in 2018. In the introduction to Fugitives of the Heart, Gay’s last posthumous novel, the infamous trailer burglary comes up again and Brewer contends a completed Natchez Trace novel is still out there, though White disagrees and believes the fragment in Stories from the Attic represents the entirety of the Natchez Trace story. Perhaps, Gay was just telling tall tales about the extent of the stolen work taken that fateful day his trailer was burglarized; it does make for a good story. These stories of lost and stolen writing or work found buried in the attic simply add to the mystique of William Gay.

Of the memoirs, “Reading the South Part I (Paperback Edition),” offers a wonderful view into the early works that inspired Gay, most of which he found at the local pharmacy on paperback book racks. Reading the South Part II (Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying)” is the introduction Gay wrote for The Folio Society’s 2011 As I Lay Dying edition of which he was immensely proud. We can see firsthand how Gay’s real life infiltrated his characters’ lives. In the short memoir, “Fumbling For The Keys To The Doors Of Perception,” Gay describes a time when he was first married and working at a boat factory. He was laying out of work one day and the foreman sent someone to retrieve him. Tidewater in “Tidewater’s Eden,” also recently married and working at a factory, experiences a similar situation. Tidewater is awakened by a horn honking and goes outside to inspect: “The foreman sent me after you, he said.” Tidewater is stunned, as one can imagine Gay was when this occurred, and Tidewater snarkily responds, “I never seen a goddamned place would come after you, he said. He done this ever day I’d save a lot on gas.” Neither Gay nor Tidewater got in the car. The character Yates in the novel Fugitives of the Heart has a love for Mark Twain as Gay did: “… he was hopelessly snared by Twain, forced to seek out the book in surreptitious moments during the day, finish the book far ahead of her [Widow Paiton] though she pretended not to notice and went on to reading his chapter at night anyway.” In “Reading the South Part I (Paperback Edition),” Gay describes his early attachment to Twain. His high school librarian sent him “a beat-up and worn copy of Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn the library was discarding. It was the first book for which I rationed myself pages when I was nearing the end, allowing myself ten pages a day.” In addition, Yates and Gay both love Thomas Wolfe and both worked in chicken houses. These are small examples where we may compare Gay’s personal experiences and qualities to his male protagonists, but the parallels are endless.

Beginning with the story, “Ascension of Pepper Yates,” we are reminded why Gay has stood the test of time as the one of the best Southern Gothic authors. Pepper Yates, like many of the protagonists that follow in the short stories, is your prototypical Gay protagonist, part villain, part conman, an underdog, an orphan, an outsider, but intelligent and comical. The memoirs reveal a profoundly serious author for all the stories of debauchery he wrote. Finally, we, with the roundtable discussion, can gain a deeper understanding into how important publishing Gay’s work has been to Team Gay, his family, and friends and maybe enjoy a tale or two about William Gay, the man.

Stories from the Attic, by William Gay. Ann Arbor, Michigan: Dzanc Books, July 2022. 348 pages. $26.95, hardcover.

Dawn Major received her MFA in Creative Writing from the Etowah Valley Writing Program at Reinhardt University, her BA in English from Kennesaw State University, and a Creative Writing Certificate from Emory Continuing Education. She was awarded the James Dickey Fellowship and acted as editorial assistant for the James Dickey Review. She’s won the Dr. Robert Driscoll Award for Excellence in Writing on Regional Themes and the Faculty Choice Award also for Excellence in Writing. Her published work may be found at Elder Mountain: A Journal of Ozark Studies, Georgia Gothic Anthology, Springer Mountain PressSouthern Literary Review, Five Points-A Journal of Literature & ArtJames Dickey ReviewSanctuary JournalSediments Literary-Arts Journal, and Family Life Publications. She is a member of Atlanta Writers Club, Broadleaf Writers Association, Georgia Writers Association, and Horror Writers Association. She provides editorial assistance on the works of the late southern author, William Gay, who she also enjoys lecturing about at literary conferences. To learn more about Dawn Major, visit her website at dawnmajor.com where she shares her work, collaborations, and advocates for southern authors. She lives in Atlanta with her family and is seeking publication of her book, The Bystanders.

Check out HFR’s book catalog, publicity list, submission manager, and buy merch from our Spring store. Follow us on Instagram, Twitter, and YouTube.