I don’t go to the wall enough anymore, but that’s a topic for another time. This one’s for William Gay, who died yesterday. I’ve seen many people express shock his passing at the relatively young age of 68, but it should be noted that 68 in Southern author years is a pretty good run, besting a number of his contemporaries. Also, if you ever met Mr. Gay, you were saddened to learn of his passing, but you weren’t necessarily surprised by it. On his best days William rarely looked long for this world.
I distinctly remember the first time I met William. I was up for one of my regular summer escapes to Oxford in what must have been the summer of 2002, because I recall my leg still being stiff from the burn I’d suffered back in January. It’d been a shit year between the burn, friends dying, friends and drugs combining and resulting in friends almost dying and working a shit job for shitty people, just to name the lowest points. These long weekend escapes to Oxford were always some of my favorite times spent in Mississippi: the town, having jettisoned its legion of undergrads, returned to the sleepy, slow pace that immediately hearkened back to Faulkner’s Oxford. In the summer of 2002 I appreciated it more than usual.
On the Saturday night of my stay Lucky, Emily, Sarah and I loaded up and drove out to Taylor Grocery for plates of catfish and cold, brown-bagged beer. A later incarnation of Blue Mountain played a few acoustic sets on a flatbed truck outside the restaurant, which I believe (possibly incorrectly) was one of the last shows they played until their recent reunion. After the music was done we headed up the road a bit to a Taylor residents house for a bonfire, the air still cool enough in the early summer night (it must have been Memorial Day weekend) so that standing within a couple dozen feet of a fire wasn’t unbearable. Larry Brown, was there, and so was William, and standing around that fire I was a fan-boy amongst my gods. William was drunk and quiet most of the time unless talking to a pretty girl (Sarah, 35 years his junior, got most of his attention; he was kind of in love with that summer, as I recall). At some point Larry picked up a guitar and very hesitantly worked his way through a Hank Williams song (the title lost to too many beers and time). Apparently he was working really hard on his guitar playing and was still getting his chops. I seem to remember hearing he was pretty accomplished by the time he died just 2 years later. And that was where I met William. There was no memorable conversation, just small talk about music we liked, mostly (William loved to talk and write about music). He rode back to Oxford with us since Sarah was in our car and crammed into the back of Emily’s Ford Explorer I cracked the last Budweiser tallboy left in the bag and without a word between us (William was done talking to anyone beyond a mostly incoherent mumble at that point) he and I shared it on the dark country roads going back to town with the Rolling Stones playing on the stereo.
Within a few weeks of that night in Taylor I would start my 3 year tenure at Lemuria in Jackson and see more of William and of Larry, sometimes in the store, sometimes in more casual settings. But nothing beat that night out in Taylor, devoid of work to do and pretension; just a bunch of beer drinking good old boys whooping it up in the country, some of whom happened to be among the finest Southern writers of our time.
Many male Southern authors have been fascinating characters in and of themselves before you even get to the people they put on the page. They more than anyone else in the field seem to have held on to the Hemingway-esque trappings of the occupation. Amongst the greatest of them there is much drinking and bravado, all of which serve to mask fragile, emotional psyches. What I will always remember about William other than our night out in Taylor was his eyes. They were depth-less in their sadness and knowing. It is no accident that most of the true heavies in the canon on the guys’ side die young of something heart-related. They wring the things out onto the page, use them to their fullest and brightest potential, and eventually they give out before the rest of us think it’s time. But if you ever got to look Willie Morris, Larry Brown, Barry Hannah and William Gay in the eyes you could tell they knew what they’d traded for, and they were sure it was worth it.
Rest in peace, William. And thank you for some wonderful words and that night in Taylor.