A startling reminder of why I read so much – ever seeking gems like this novel. I’d pitch it as a blend of McCarthy’s ‘Suttree’ and Chaucer’s ‘Canterbury Tales’. As a writer, to my eye, Gay mastered it all: the poetry, insight, story, comedy and tragedy, the tremendous characters that make you ashamed of humanity but still admire it.
The story behind this book’s discovery is extraordinary too. Gay died in 2012 and weeks before his death, he couldn’t find the next novel he intended for publication – this one, written in the 70s. The manuscript’s notebooks were found in his home, then the manuscript typed by his daughter in the 70s was later discovered in several boxes in the roof-space of the cabin he’d once lived in. The last section of the book was found behind a piece of sheet-rock. The disparate, unnumbered typed sheets, filmed with a rime of dust, were then pieced together painstakingly and cross-referenced with the notebooks, by family and friends (mainly J. M. White who tells this extraordinary story, of a masterpiece that came close to oblivion, in the Dzanc edition).
Gay wasn’t published until his 50s but had been writing prose as magnificent as this from his twenties – beggars belief. As if to pile on the misfortune, his publisher went under shortly after his death. This game deals bad hands but this is one of the worst I’ve come across.
The silver lining is that during the examination, or excavation, of his “papers”, four novels and one more short story collection were found. I assume one of those was ‘Little Sister Death’, and maybe another ‘Stoneburner’ (no UK release so I missed that, his first novel, and the only one I haven’t read), so there should be three more books coming.