Review

Twilight

by William Gay



In a 2001 interview, William Gay, speaking of the rural South whose
culture he has chronicled in two novels and a collection of
stories, observed, "The people I'm writing about don't exist
anymore." His third novel, TWILIGHT, returns readers to that
vanished world, weaving a powerful spell in a chilling literary
thriller brimming with dark secrets, terror, revenge and
redemption.

In the small town of Centre, Tennessee in 1951, teenager Kenneth
Tyler and his older sister Corrie suspect that the burial given
their bootlegger father by the town undertaker, Fenton Breece,
wasn't exactly what they paid for. The confirmation they receive
when they visit his grave leads to more nocturnal excavations that
expose grotesque mishandling of dead bodies by the unscrupulous
mortician. Their discovery becomes even more horrifying when
Kenneth accidentally comes across a cache of Breece's photographs
that expose the undertaker's bizarre sexual activities.

Over her brother's objections, Corrie attempts to use the
photographs to blackmail Breece for $15,000, but instead of
yielding to her threat, the victim hires Granville Sutter, a
psychopath who has already murdered a juror who voted to convict
him on an arson charge and then escaped conviction in his trial for
that murder. Breece makes a bargain with the devil, setting in
motion the harrowing chase that will pull readers through the final
two-thirds of the book.

When Kenneth's effort to enlist the law to deal with Sutter's
threat to murder him and his sister in gruesome fashion if he
doesn't produce the photographs fails, the young man flees to a
nightmare wood called the "Harrikin," a region once filled with
mines and railroads and now abandoned, mostly to the forces of
natural decay. As those enterprises departed, Gay writes, "the
people left like the Maya abandoning their cities to build other
cities, and all that remained were the few families who'd refused
to sell their land and itinerant squatters staking dubious claim to
what no one else wanted and misanthropic misfits who felt some
perverse kinship with this deserted, tortured land." Kenneth
wanders this bleak landscape in the early days of a Tennessee
winter, on a quest for the town of Ackerman's Field and a Sheriff
Bellwether he has heard is determined to put Sutter in jail for his
earlier crimes. Gay traces Kenneth's odyssey and that of his
ruthless pursuer in ravishing prose capable of rendering scenes of
stark ugliness with transforming beauty.

Along the way, Kenneth encounters characters and situations that
seem as if they are lifted from familiar fairy tales; observant
readers will hear echoes of Goldilocks, Rapunzel and Jack and the
Beanstalk, all of them given a sinister twist. The climax of the
story takes place at a mysterious "whistling well," where Kenneth
hears an unearthly sound that "seemed to be issuing out of the
earth itself, sad and murmurous voices of the damned pleabargaining
for their souls." As in all fairy tales, the ending of Gay's novel
is satisfying, but a high price is paid in suffering and death
before Gay transports the reader there.

Apart from the often heartstopping pursuit that provides the
novel's action, there is great pleasure to be taken from Gay's
singular prose. Whether he's pointing out "deadfalls of broken
pines skinned bonewhite in the moonlight" or a land "landscaped by
the winds with the fallen leaves of decades," Gay paints arresting
word pictures. He's fond of neologisms like "stormbent" trees, an
"almostsound" or a "pasthaunted" place that might feel precious in
the hands of some writers but are perfectly apt here.

One of the Harrikin's inhabitants, an old woman who offers to tell
Kenneth's fortune just before he flees into the haunted forest,
utters words that capture the book's theme: "There's things in this
world better let alone. Things sealed away and not meant to be
looked upon. Lines better not crossed, and when you do cross em you
got to take what comes."

In the end, TWILIGHT is a morality play that metes out reward and
punishment in equal measure. It's a work of acute psychological
insight that insinuates its way into the bones like a chill fog
descending on a dark forest. Readers who first encounter Gay in
this novel undoubtedly will want to read more of this compelling
writer's work.

Reviewed by Harvey Freedenberg (mwn52@aol.com) on January 24, 2011

Twilight
by William Gay

  • Publication Date: October 20, 2006
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Hardcover: 300 pages
  • Publisher: MacAdam/Cage
  • ISBN-10: 1596920580
  • ISBN-13: 9781596920583