William Gay grew up in rural Tennessee in a shack without plumbing or electricity. Then, living in a nearby trailer, he worked as a drywall hanger (but only after the bills piled up) and otherwise wrote fiction full-time. None of his work was published until he reached the age of 59.
Three of his novels were published during his lifetime, written by hand (in spiral-bound notebooks and on scraps of paper) sitting in a chair he dragged to the edge of the wild woods. After his death in 2012, a group of writer-friends and editors organized and compiled the writings that now constitute Fugitives of the Heart, the last of four novels by Gay published posthumously.
These friends and editors did a good job of creating the narrative structure of Gay’s novel, in that Fugitives of the Heart is composed of a series of set pieces that lead from one to another in a straightforward and logical fashion. What makes this novel masterful, though, is that the plot points that Gay strung along this rational throughline are, in and of themselves, wild and far off the beaten path of reason. We find a world of violence, casual and gothic, in a backwoods setting where the 15-year-old protagonist, Yates, ranges on his own over the countryside by day– but mostly by night.
The story opens in 1947 with a neighbor pulling up to Yates’ shack in a mule-drawn wagon to offload the bloody body of Yates’ father, shot while stealing meat. (Being neighborly, the shooter also offloads the meat.) Soon his mother, a wizened woman with both a nervous condition and a slew of gentleman callers, dies. There follows a story composed of intense encounters between the orphaned Yates and the hardscrabble folks inhabiting his hamlet, Allen’s Creek.
Gay writes in a style that always creates tension; when violence is not in the air, it is bubbling just beneath the surface. There is volatile tinder everywhere, and whenever these flinty folks bump up against each other they generate sparks. And there is another constant presence: the violent background music generated by the grinding of the local iron-ore crusher and by the iron-ore washer roiling the creek, providing a constant supply of fish, belly-up.
Yates, surrounded by tightly-wound mountain folk and this continuous pounding soundtrack, is always moving through nature, rough and unforgiving and beautiful. Gay writes in the style of what has been called ‘lyrical realism’ but here the lyricism doesn’t sugarcoat reality–far from it. Gay serves up stunning language: the piercing vocabulary of the woods and the wheeling night sky, of creek banks, villages slipping past freight-train doors, storms and seasons, all-enveloping quotidian yet brutal human interactions. It is this incongruity that makes Fugitives an outstanding and edgy novel.
Along the way, Yates befriends a Black man named Crowe and their bond of friendship informs a good part of the action. If you are thinking that this tale might resonate with The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn you would not be alone, especially as Twain’s novel is referenced with reverence. (A cave plays an important role as the plot reaches its climax.) There are other resonances as well, with the writing of both William Faulkner and, more prominently, Cormac McCarthy.
In Fugitives of the Heart, we find a dark coming-of-age tale, youthful lust tinged with comic relief. In one scene, when Yates spies on the young widow who has taken him in, he falls through the bathroom ceiling as he watches her shower. For the most part, though, Gay serves up a seriously nasty brew, redolent of cruelty and revenge yet couched in highly evocative, even poetic language.
One difficulty in critiquing Fugitives of the Heart arises from the fact that a number of people reconstructed the novel from the disparate notebooks and papers on which it was written. Certain difficulties might have been ironed out by Gay, including the resolution of the cave scene with Yates and Crowe, which may strike readers as out of character.
Speaking of the cave, Allen’s Creek looks downright civilized compared to the adjacent region (which actually existed in Gay’s locale) that historically housed brick furnaces for smelting iron ore. This area was abandoned to become a wild and dangerous territory named the ‘Harrikin’ — after the ‘hurricane’ (thought by Gay to have actually been a tornado) that ravaged the area decades earlier. The twisted topography and dark history of the Harrikin, where the climactic set-piece in Fugitives of the Heart takes place, is described at length not in in this novel but at the end of Book One in Gay’s, Twilight (2006).
Gay’s striking last novel, Fugitives of the Heart, exposes a world of roughhewn folk that many of us, unlike Gay, has ever experienced. In the end, he draws back the narrative camera and writes of these characters:
They are gone now, vanished to the last man. They are dust and fluted bone in grownover graveyards… They bred on backroads and neon allnight honkeytonks and festered in secondhand housetrailers. They perish unmourned, on poolroom floors and in the twisted metal of cars on bloody highways… They had moved across the earth as briefly as the passage of the sun, then they were gone.