Friday, March 9th, 2012 by

From our author John Pritchard:

I cannot claim to have known William Gay well. But I admired him very, very much, and my life was touched by him in more than just an abstract way. Indeed, he blurbed my second book, The Yazoo Blues.

That piece of good luck came about because Middle Tennessee State professor Randy Mackin, director of the Tennessee Literary Project, put me in touch with William, who purposefully made himself difficult to contact.

My relationship with William was brief and almost entirely telephonic. We enjoyed a couple of exceedingly long chats over the telephone, and as a result of those talks, I knew I really liked him and understood how unusual and perhaps how massively significant he was in terms of what, where, and when he was. I always meant to get in the car and go over to Hohenwald, Tennessee, to see William, but I never did.  I should have.

Still, telephone conversations cannot be underestimated. They have sustained the bond of many a friendship for decades. Plus, it is easy to hear that other voice inside a person on the far end of the line that tells us who we are talking to. And when we hear it in that way, I say it is the human analog of a hound-dog’s infallible sense of smell. Therefore, the impressive value I place on William Gay is what any writer might assign if he or she, like me, were equipped with only two marathon telephone calls — lightly reinforced on each occasion by a semi au courant awareness of the life, work, and general gestalt of the man himself. Thank God for Alexander Graham Bell.

Sadly I am not one of those writers who reads everything, keeps up, and constantly reads. People often ask: “What books do you like?” And I answer: “Seinfeld re-runs.” Thus exposed I must go all the way and admit that I was first taken simply by two of William Gay’s titles. The actual titles of the titles.

They are I Hate To See That Evening Sun Go Down and The Long Home. The words in both reveal a lot about the depth and weather of William’s character. I thought so when I first saw them, that those titles might just be William to a “T.”

The former, a short story that became the title of a book of stories, is, as you know, the opening line of W. C. Handy’s “St. Louis Blues”; and the latter, as you further know, is from the hand of the world’s first known existentialist writer, the primary author of Ecclesiastes. The words that follow are found in the King James Version, Chapter 12:

. . . man goeth to his long home, and the mourners go about the streets: Or ever the silver cord be loosed, or the golden bowl be broken, or the pitcher be broken at the fountain, or the wheel broken at the cistern. Then shall the dust return to the earth as it was: and the spirit shall return unto God who gave it.

During the 2009 Southern Festival of Books in Nashville, I thought I was going to see William and talk with him a little, and thank him again for what he had given me. But he fell ill in his hotel room right before he was scheduled to appear and had to go back home.

Still, I was certain that pretty soon I would get up early one morning, hop in my 2000 Ford Explorer, and make the pleasant and relatively easy trip from Memphis to Hohenwald to pay him a call. But that is the nature of not doing something a person knows he needs to do. Time passes, and the day arrives when it cannot be done — that day when “man goeth to his long home, and the mourners go about the streets” . . . the day when that evening sun has gone down and there will be no more mornings in which to procrastinate.

William Gay and I were close to the same age, both apparent masters of imperfection, Southerners, and writers. And though there are plenty of differences, I felt we were more alike than not — on more than just a few levels. I caught in him the artist who manages, through his art and by his craft, not necessarily to overcome all the minuses but to outfox them enough so that he is able to place upon the table of our world . . . the silver cord and golden bowl of the self.

He died on Thursday, February 23, 2012. But his silver cord is not loosed, his golden bowl is not broken, and his pitcher is not cracked at the fountain — nor is the wheel on the fritz at the cistern. All those unbroken things stand for what he was and what he produced. They are in good order, and we have them at hand. By declaring this, I do not minimize the incomprehensible permanence of death nor the mind-stumping concept of eternity. Not at all.

But though William Gay has gone to that long home, his intellect and talent along with the world he saw and everything that made him who he was — and in some measure who we are, too — he wrote down on paper . . . and now on that in print and also within every cybernated particle of the very electrified air around us, all of it is still here and will last as long as there are readers to receive it. And I may yet make that trip to Hohenwald.

(For more information on William Gay, see his obituary in the Mobile Press Register.)

John Pritchard grew up in the Mississippi Delta, a place of dark and elemental myth that inspired him to write. He currently lives in Memphis, where he has taught college-level English — often in knickers — for most of the last thirty-two years. Barnes and Noble named his debut novel Junior Ray one of their Top Ten Sensational Debut Novels for 2005. NewSouth published the sequel, The Yazoo Blues, in 2008. The unforgettable Junior Ray Loveblood will return for a third time in the forthcoming Sailing to Alluvium.