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William Gay
I Hate to See That Evening Sun Go Down
Reviewed by: Rick Kleffel © 2002

Free Press / Simon & Schuster
US Hardcover First Edition
ISBN 978-0-7432-4088-X
Publication Date: 10-01-2002
306 Pages; $24.00
Date Reviewed: 10-21-2002

Index:  General Fiction  Mystery  Horror

Some genres are better served by novels and others by short stories. In 'I Hate to See That Evening Sun Go Down', William Gay offers up thirteen strong arguments that the Southern Gothic is served best served by the short story format. Each story in this collection is a powerfully rendered reading experience. Gay's language is sparse and superb. He's able to evoke characters, families and their relationships with an unprecedented degree of depth in a confined space. His condensed plots are clever and imaginative. Unlike his novels, most of these stories are set in the current day south. His characters are often more elderly and usually only barely making ends meet. In the course of Gay's narratives, they are usually presented with a choice, and the results of their decisions are often violent. Some are deluded and some are demented. Gay's not afraid to follow the mind of a man going slowly, quietly mad. The reader will happily follow Gay anywhere he wants to go.

Gay himself did not start publishing until later in his life, and it shows in his characters. There are a fair number of elderly men presented here, and their portraits are amongst the powerful. In the title story, Abner Meecham escapes from his nursing home to return to his house, only to find that his son has rented it to a family Meecham has long considered white trash. Meecham's clash with the Choat family is alternately hilarious and heart-pounding. Gay's laconic prose perfectly fits the thought processes of the old man, who gets more confused as the story progresses. 'Those Deep Elm Brown's Ferry Blues' is the powerhouse of the collection, the black-as-coal conflict between a man and his son rendered with a precision and lyricism that bridges laughs and somber reflect effortlessly.

Covering contemporary culture, Gay is revealed to be a more skilled and varied writer than one might have thought from his novels. 'The Paperhanger', a superbly creepy story about a missing child, follows the destruction of the family in aftermath. The Pakistani doctor and his wife Gay creates force their unpleasant way into the reader's mind without effort. The titular character is a greasy stain that follows. 'Closure and Roadkill on Life's Highway' is not as sinister as the other stories, but it's no less enjoyable. Gay's black sense of humor enables him to paint this entertaining picture of the death of a marriage in scenes that leave the reader smiling with pleasure. Every character in each story, no matter how ugly, detached from the common stream of human experience, or how violent is likable in Gay's precise prose. It's the pleasure from seeing a well-wrought portrait. The artist's skill shows through even when the subject is ugly.

As the stories pass by, Gay accumulates a bit of a territory, bringing back characters and places so that the collection gets some continuity between the stories. For those who dislike the art of Thomas Kinkade, 'Painter of Light', 'The Lightpainter' is will give you an idea of this writer's skill. His titular character avoids the degradation that the reader sees coming, but Gay cooks up something nearly as bad. Most importantly, Gay's unsympathetic portrait of his character has the unintuitive effect of making the character likeable. Gay's clarity when dealing the imperfections of the characters lets the reader appreciate his precision and humor even though the character is repugnant. We see the character's flaws that they are unaware of. We descend with them into madness, into senility, into self-abasement. Gay lets us laugh in the process, his sharp spikes of humor helping to keep a lid on any apparent excess of solemnity. Even if you don't like short stories, and you don't think you like stories about confused, self-deceived Southerners, you should give this collection a read. Reading's the point. These stories are purely pleasurable, every bit as good as the best that have proceeded them form writers such as Flannery O'Connor or William Faulkner. Funny, violent and consummately well written, 'I Hate to See That Evening Sun Go Down' is probably one of the best books you can buy this (or any) year.

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