At its heart, Provinces of Night is a morality tale. Fleming Bloodworth, a seventeen year old boy living in late 50’s Tennessee, has to decide whether to follow in his family’s footsteps of wanderlust and refusal to live up to responsibility, or whether to follow a more sober, decent road. The characters are, at first sight, types: the errant father hunting down his wife’s lover; Brady, the crazed uncle who hexes his enemies; E.F Bloodworth, the grandfather who spent twenty years wandering away from home, a hero to the old-folks, and who plays the banjo like a bluesman Orpheus. Of course, there’s also the wild, angelic-haired Junior Albright, who has a fondness for women old enough to be his mother, as Fleming’s sidekick. The love interest? A ‘sloe-eyed beauty’ called Raven Lee.
The themes and characters in this novel, then, are universal types. Boyd, a dispossessed Meneleus, Fleming, the young Telemachus, and old E.F, Odysseus, returning home after twenty years. Gay also seems to see himself as something of a bluesman: for instance, the crossroads near Fleming’s house symbolise the ‘realm of possibility’, a common blues-riff. In the wrong hands, this novel could be the typical Southern American ‘hillbilly’ trash written by university professors desperate to be Huck Finn. Instead, Gay’s writing powers the subject matter into sublimely epic proportions. There is a Hardyesque attention to the physical world around the characters: they scratch out an existence, barely registering in the great scheme of nature; dominated by, yet also half-contemptuous of the land around them. The cadence of the prose allows this presiding image of people still battling to gain a foothold in the world to take on a profound metaphysical significance. Those who grow up in the ‘sticks’ never fit in anywhere else, they are immutable: “Drop them in a beaker of acid and they would list down and rest unchanged on the bottom, unassimilated, unrepentant, unreconstructed.”
It is Gay’s particular gift to show how, even when the very landscape changes (such as the state-sponsored imposition on a dam which drowns Fleming’s house, and the oh so symbolic crossroads), most of the characters cannot, or will not, adapt to change. Indeed, the focus is on those characters who attempt change, who will to be free of the old, stereotyped ways. It is, to use that phrase beloved by Heaney, Gunn, and schoolteachers, a rite of passage, where change is necessary solely for the purpose of survival, not the accumulation of country-wisdom.
These characters are not stereotypes. Boyd, who kills with little thought of the victim, and is an errant father to say the least, yet brings his son books and treats him kindly; E.F, an old man coming home to die, is still unable to resist tricking a gullible cattle-dealer into driving him four hundred miles out of his way to take the old man home — with dire consequences. These are people, and their humanity is as tangible as characters in the novels of Hardy and Lawrence; they are confused, angry, illogical, and it is a great feat to marry such poetical linguistic talent with deep-rooted understanding of the human condition.
Sometimes, the imagery jars with the characters’ personality, or the tone of the book itself: “the air full of bits of weeds like anomolaec snow” seems unnecessary use of vocabulary; and the image of E.F’s nurse taking dead over the river Styx seems out of place with the scene’s character, too Classicised and explicit for Gay’s usually subtle and well-handled imagery. Despite these very occasional, but noticeable, mishandlings, this approach often works very well: “Tilting blackbirds burnished by the noon sun gleamed like contrivances of tinfoil”, and many other phrases of this quality, shame our own ‘great’ contemporary nature poets with their observational brilliance. I rarely think this of modern writers, but Gay has produced a Great work of art, certainly close, if not equal (dare I say it?) to Lawrence and Hardy’s own peculiar geniuses.
Reviewed by Gregor Milne