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Provinces of Night

William Gay

Doubleday / Random House

US Hardcover First

ISBN 0-385-49927-2

Publication Date: 12-15-2000

293 Pages; $23.95

Date Reviewed: 10-14-02

Reviewed by Rick Kleffel © 2002



General Fiction, Horror

10-17-02, 12-31-02, 01-07-03, 05-23-03

Some stories defy simple explanation. Their power easily evades description. Simple stories offer an opportunity for a writer of true and deep talent to sculpt words as if they were lumber, lovingly and with great care. William Gay came late to the craft. But his sure way with words makes reading 'Provinces of Night' a sure and memorable experience. There's not a speck of waste or pretence in his gorgeous writing. 'Provinces of Night' glides easily through a landscape of stubborn husbands, withered wives, children grown old but not wise and curse-casting wastrels sitting on momma's front porch. Gay's prose offers the simple and smooth surface of Southern Gothic subjects exquisitely rendered in wood-grained words. Reality itself is supple, colors are richer, the night is dark and the stark sun of midday will sear the skin from those unfortunate enough to remain in the light too long. Readers will find endlessly enjoyable depths in 'Provinces of Night'.

The plot is whiskey-simple. The story kicks off with the discovery of a skeleton in a valley about to be flooded by the Tennessee Valley Authority. It's 1952, and E. F. Bloodworth has returned to his home after an absence of twenty years. In the interim, his sons have grown into a vengeful husband, a drink-sodden adulterer and a hex-casting momma's boy. His wife has become an animated, deeply detailed husk of her former self. Only 17 year-old Fleming, Boyd's son, can form any kind of connection with E. F. In order for Fleming to be with Raven Lee, the dark-haired beauty from a neighboring town, he'll have to learn from E. F. and the rest of his family how to escape the family's curse.

Curses, hexes, jinxes and spells figure prominently in 'Provinces of Night'. The entire narrative is written with the fluid grace of a chant to darken the lightest soul. Emotional ties devoid of logic and reason function as magic. Gay bends reality ever so slightly, but steers clear of cliché. This novel evokes a feel of the numinous supernatural forces within humans that masquerade as love, hate and madness. With his slow, scraping style, reading Gay's prose is akin to watching a sculptor unearth the art within a block of stone. Don't make the mistake of thinking this novel is any less pleasurable to read than a page-turning bestseller. Gay writes with an ease that makes the pages slip by when the reader is looking at the dark places Gay find in between.

'Provinces of Night' also displays more prominently Gay's exceptional sense of humor. A substantial part of the novel concerns one Junior Albright, a cursed man who bears his burden with a goofy purity. One mistake leads to a lawyer's curse, and then a financier's. Forget the witches. The real magicians of this world deprive us of our money, and power of the law is wizardry, pure and simple. Words are hurled with a palpable force, and the results can as easily be slapstick as suicide.

Sometimes, the strands that Gay brings together in his rough-hewn cloak are rough, and the fit is not always perfect. But his language is nearly perfect, and his characters are painted with a power that raises them off the page. Like a sorcerer working with rare elements, he's able to add the spark that brings them to life. Readers owe it to themselves to look deep into 'Provinces of Night'. They're likely to find something frighteningly familiar gazing back at them.