book Provinces of Night

reviewed by Emily Banner

Published in Issue No. 50 ~ July, 2001

A man nearing the end of a murderous quest — to hunt down and
kill his wife’s lover — pauses on the brink of action. He can
carry out the plan he’s made, he realizes, but what will he do then?
He is “at the point on an ancient map beyond which the old
cartographers had drawn dragons.”

His seventeen-year-old son, meanwhile, is home alone, both parents
gone, and doesn’t know what to make of himself. In his solitude he
begins to lose his sense of who he is, and the landscape and objects
around him seem fraught with meaning: “The house seemed to be
listening to him. To be waiting. As if he’d begun to tell some tale
and the house was waiting for him to continue, listening patiently to
hear the end of the story. But he’d lost the thread of the narrative
and he could not go on.”

In the ties between these two men, in the world they encounter and the
worlds they make for themselves, is situated a powerful, brooding
novel. The plot is full of dangerous men and murky goings-on, but
Provinces of Night
rises above these trappings by means of human
warmth, humor, and an aching, unexpected poetry.

Set in Tennessee in 1952, the book focuses on the aptly named
Bloodworth clan: three generations of sharecroppers, bootleggers, and
mystics. There is E.F., an old bluesman on the run, and his wife,
Julia, whom he abandoned decades ago. There are their children:
Warren, who is lost to dissipation (and whose son is following his
lead); Boyd, dispassionately out to kill; and Brady, at home with his
mother, inventing curses for his enemies. And there is Fleming, Boyd’s
son, smart enough to see his elders for what they are, and young
enough to still have hope. While the older Bloodworths pursue their
vendettas and chase down their good times, Fleming’s hope becomes the
crux of the novel as he tries, step by perilous step, to find a way
off his family’s well-trodden path to despair.

It’s a dark and violent world these characters move in. “Blood calls
to blood” is how they describe the ties of kinship — but the
problem is that blood keeps on calling. Tragedy is all around. Lives
are lost or simply thrown away, be they human or animal, aged or
unborn. Death comes via agency or accident, and even the accidents
feel ominous, and have reverberations that only increase with time.
Everyone is beset by hard luck, but as Fleming notes, that can’t tell
the whole story: “Surely it could not happen by accident or even by a
multitude of wrong choices,” he thinks, after hearing yet another
story from his family’s past. “[Y]ou’d think it would take an act of
sheer will to plummet so far.”

Most of Gay’s characters are smart enough to recognize their plight,
but few do anything about it. Some are too bitter or set in their ways
to try for something better. Others, like E.F. Bloodworth and his
estranged wife, have the excuse of age; they can see the damage
they’ve done to their lives, but feel it’s too late to make amends.
But for Fleming, and for Raven Lee Halfacre (“the prettiest girl in a
three-county area”), it may not be too late — if they can find a
path for themselves.

Gay’s writing style is occasionally difficult but improves with
familiarity. His voice mimics not just his characters’ speech but the
very rhythms of their lives, leading to a rather freestyle approach to
punctuation and syntax. At times this results in self-indulgent
run-ons (“Fleming judged there was a story here could he but hear it
but Boyd was a man whose fences you broached at your peril and he
guessed if Boyd wanted him to know he’d tell him.”), but more often
it’s used judiciously and well. In fact, the voice ultimately seems
like the only one with which this story could be told. When E. F.
tells Fleming about his music, he reflects to himself that “[w]hat he
told Fleming was a shorthand version and there were things he kept to
himself not because they painted a picture or told a story he did not
want told but because they were things he could not articulate.” Here
the native pauses and emphases are clear despite the lack of
punctuation, the informality of the prose matching the informal

Elsewhere Gay exploits the rhythms he’s developed, using the
established voice to stunning effect. In one particularly gorgeous
passage, he describes Fleming under water: “The creek felt cold and
clean, and he stayed beneath the surface until his lungs felt like
fire in his chest and lights like fireflies drifted gently across the
black expanse of the underside of his eyelids and he came up gasping
and sucking air into his lungs.” Here the syntactical style takes on a
desperate pace, and the beauty and anxiety and drawing-out of the
sentence become a perfect mirror for Fleming’s held breath.

Throughout the novel Gay keeps raising the stakes for all his
characters, slowly but steadily, until by book’s end there are not
just lives but souls to be saved or lost. In this way he draws the
reader in gradually, the novel becoming more engrossing page by page,
until what started as a slow-paced story steeped in Faulknerian gloom
becomes a compelling page-turner.

A motif that appears throughout the book is that of someone alone and
searching — usually in vain — for meaning, for a way to
impose sense on a senseless world. One such moment has Julia recalling
the day E.F. left her, and in her reverie her mind wanders:

Light through an intricate wickerwork of branches moved and swayed,
moved and swayed. Light and shadow latticed together moved
endlessly on the earth and she stared at it, thinking for a time
that she could divine pattern there, order. But it moved with the
sun and it moved with the wind and ultimately was as random and
unordered as life…

Light and dark have an obvious symbolic significance that Gay, to
his credit, employs repeatedly without stooping to the hackneyed or
trite. The natural world looms large here, occasionally a catalyst
to events but more often an enormous, breathing backdrop to them,
and the movement of light in particular serves to underscore the
characters’ development. Appropriately, the night that Fleming
meets Raven Lee, they watch fireflies dancing over a river. By the
end of the evening Fleming already senses that she might change his
life, and as he drives home he reflects on what they saw:

There was something oddly restful about the fireflies. He
couldn’t put his finger on it but he drew comfort from it
anyway. The way they’d seemed not separate entities but a single
being, a moving river of light that flowed above the dark water
like its negative image and attained a transient and fragile
dominion over the provinces of night.

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Emily Banner is a co-founder of Inkberry, a nonprofit literary center in the Berkshires. She lives in western Massachusetts.