Shallow Grave

(Rob Sylvan / Istockphoto)
Reviewed by Art Taylor
Sunday, October 29, 2006


A Novel

By William Gay

MacAdam/Cage. 224 pp. $25

Corrie and Kenneth Tyler find their worst suspicions confirmed when they dig up the corpse of their bootlegger father. They're hoping to prove that undertaker Fenton Breece cheated them out of an $800 steel vault. But the real story is what else they discover: a grisly pattern of mutilated corpses. In one coffin, "an old woman shared her resting place with a young man wh o'd had his throat straightrazored, and he lay humped athwart her thighs as they lay arm in arm in eternal debauchery."

While such discoveries might mark a lesser book's grim denouement -- the horrible truth finally revealed -- William Gay's twisted and tantalizing third novel successfully torques screws already tight from the start. Stolen photographs reveal further atrocities; the siblings decide to blackmail the undertaker; and Breece in turn enlists the aid of Granville Sutter, a remorseless killer, to retrieve the damning evidence.

Then things take a bad turn.

Twilight is almost textbook Southern Gothic, with its elements of the grotesque and perverse, its psychological extremes and its fixations on violence and sex. Gay successfully uses this form's ability to unsettle readers, forcing them to see anew darker aspects of humanity. When Breece positions an adored corpse for an afternoon of listening to radio shows, for example, the bleak mimicry of domesticity may leave readers unsure whether to chuckle or flinch.

But perhaps more interesting are Gay's other structural and stylistic choices. Previewing the full story in an italicized flash-forward at the novel's opening, he defuses conventional tactics of suspense but successfully refocuses readers' attentions on greater concerns, especially later, when violence forces the Tyler boy to flee into a wasteland, "eerie and strange, all black shadow and silver light." The narrative slows to ruminate on such themes as corrupted innocence, the reckless randomness of life and the inevitable, eternal nature of death -- all part of the book's deterministic bent toward "vindictive fate."

Gay's daring flirtation with myth, fairy tale and fable serves similar purposes. At one point, Sutter is likened to "some baleful god remonstrating with a world he'd created that would not do his bidding." Elsewhere, he dons a grandmother's outfit -- a big bad wolf licking his lips as he awaits his prey. By alluding to such forms even as he mixes menace and levity, Gay suggests some crucial revelation -- or perhaps dark divination -- about the pervasive nature of evil.

By Twilight 's close, this netherworld struggle offers little in the way of resolution or redemption -- only respite beside a much longer road ahead. And no moral closes this dark fable, except maybe this: There's a meanness in the world, and maybe in ourselves, and we'd better watch out for both. ·

Art Taylor is an assistant professor of English at George Mason University and a contributing editor to Metro Magazine in Raleigh, N.C.

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