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Provinces of Night


Provinces of Night

Southern fiction is known, among other things, for its surreal mix
of comedy and tragedy, and for its hyperbole. William Gay is a
Tennessean, and lucky for us, it shows. PROVINCES OF NIGHT is the
story of a young boy, abandoned by everyone who's supposed to love
him, valiantly trying to become a good man despite the poor
examples set for him by almost every male in the county. Fleming's
strong, if vague, sense of right and wrong manages to hang on by
its fingernails despite the devastating poverty and loss he has
faced --- Fleming's father took off one night, gun in hand, headed
for Detroit to find Fleming's mother, who ran off with a peddler.
Such outrageous, backwoods-type situations are believable when told
in Gay's sure, deep Southern voice.

Gay's prose is like a river at night: dark and murky, with a
slow-but-steadily-pulling current. Nearly everyone over the age of
12, man or woman, carries a gun and a bottle of homemade whiskey,
but Gay writes so convincingly that one becomes inured to the
glutinous dialect and feels akin to even these desperate
characters. Occasionally, his tone ventures too far from the humble
place he's created in the novel, and he uses highfalutin' words
that don't quite fit. Even so, he excels at painting a sepia-toned
Tennessee landscape, written in a style that feels like a camera
swooping in a slow-motion circle from the vantage point of a
Tennessee country field. He restrains himself well when
melodramatic words would cheapen a truly tragic moment, such as the
time a sinful man's plane crashes into a cliff. The accident is
preceded by the line, "and the thought of his frogfaced wife would
be far away. Below he could see moonlight on the rocks, the fleeing
shadows of clouds tracking darkly across the pale limestone, the
strewn lights of a mountain town like spilled jewelry. The wall of
the mountain rising to meet him looked as pale and smooth as a
granite headstone."

Such is the death of a man. Gay seems to be implying that even the
most flawed of human beings deserve a bit of dignity about their
death. This regard for humanity is pervasive in the naïve
thoughts and well-intentioned actions of the teenaged Fleming. No
matter the banality or meanness of the circumstances, jewels can
emerge from the rough. Fleming does, in his way, and so does Gay's

Reviewed by Stephanie Sorensen on January 23, 2011

Provinces of Night
by William Gay

  • Publication Date: April 9, 2002
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Paperback: 304 pages
  • Publisher: Anchor
  • ISBN-10: 0385499280
  • ISBN-13: 9780385499286