I have had a few responses from readers who read Provinces of Night based on my recommendation. Some shared my view that the book was terrific; others not so much. Everyone agreed that William Gay is a wordsmith. Thanks to all who took the time.
I received All the Pretty Horses as a gift many years ago. When I started reading Cormac McCarthy’s novel, I was put off by the long sentences and the sparse punctuation. But I stuck with it and am glad that I did. McCarthy is one of Gay’s favorite authors and he includes a quote from his writing in at least one of his books. I started my most recent novel trying to leave out the apostrophes on slang dialogue, (as well as quotation marks) but found out I am neither McCarthy nor Gay. I gave it up because I think my readers would be put off.
The responses I received from Provinces readers led to today’s review of the movie based on Gay’s book. Here is a portion of the letter I wrote William Gay, the author, after seeing Bloodworth.
I traveled to Tennessee in 2009 and you were gracious enough to sit down and chat with me for most of an afternoon. As I told you then, Provinces of Night is my favorite novel of all time. I thoroughly enjoyed watching Hal Holbrook in That Evening Sun after reading your story collection, so I eagerly anticipated watching Bloodworth and was pleased to see Kris Kristofferson featured on the cover of Cowboys and Indians magazine. I finally got to see it this weekend and thought you might be interested on a viewer’s take on the movie.
I enjoyed the movie and think Kris did a credible job with E. F., although I think you created a character a lot stronger than he played him. He sort of needed that conversation with the truck driver to establish himself as a man who was intelligent and crafty and who could be violent. The young actor did okay with Fleming, but I saw your novel character as not quite so angry.
I know why they had to leave out Albright, but I really hated not seeing him. That pig scene was one of the funniest I have ever read, though I see why they could not reenact it. I also hated that they left out Warren’s son.
Val Kilmer was close to perfect as Doc Holliday in Tombstone, but he bombs as Warren. Warren was, I thought, all wrong both in costume and mannerisms. Your book portrayed Warren, Medal of Honor winner that he was, as much stronger, less of a drunken fool. He was a hard-drinking, hard-living man who also had a soft streak for his brother’s son, and his own son, of course (that was my take, at least). I would have dressed him in the costume of the day for a handsome man who made a lot of money and did not mind throwing it around, just couldn’t settle down, but far from the vain fool Kilmer portrayed. I guess they had a hard time with him because the time period in the book is different than the movie.
I usually like Kilmer and Yoakum, but I also thought Dwight Yoakum got Boyd wrong. I saw Boyd as one of the most sympathetic characters in your book. He was an absent father and far from perfect man who lived by a black and white code. “Take my wife, I take your life.” His son’s literary pursuits may have made him uncomfortable, but he usually brought Fleming a book or two to read when he returned from one of his gallivants. This showed his pride and love for the boy and that really rounded him as a complex character. Also, Boyd and Fleming worked hard side by side and Boyd usually brought home food when he returned. And the book’s killing was much more credible than the one in the movie.
The guy who played Brady did a credible job. I certainly like Barry Corbin and enjoyed seeing him in That Evening Sun too, but I was disappointed not to see Itchy-Mama and those great old men on the porch. They had some of the best lines in the book.
I know it must have been difficult for the screenwriter to try to capture the rich characters you created. Congratulations on having the book made into a movie. I may not be able to write best-sellers, but I know a great author when I see one. I have said “I told you so” to lots of folks when the movies came out.
And what did Gay say to all this? Nothing. Remember? He’s reclusive.
I maintain that Gay can make words sing with both humor and raw emotion. Here’s an example of what was left out of the movie. Albright, a young ne’er-do-well who has a propensity for getting himself into awful predicaments, has to take a hog as payment for painting a barn. His only means of transportation is a car he has painted as a taxicab. He has to transport the hog in the back seat. He looked back and the hog was studying him with something akin to speculation. Halfway across the railroad trestle over the river the hog seemed taken with some sort of fit. It . . . made a razorous slash in the upholstery and dragged out a mouthful of stuffing. . . . He turned in the seat and began to beat the hog about the head and shoulders with his fists. Quit it, he yelled.
The hog manages to escape, of course, and Albright goes after him, leaving his car on the one-lane trestle. A farmer in overalls stops behind the car and looks over the bridge as Albright wrestles with the hog on the river bank. You was to move your car I’d get on out of your way and you could go on about your business. The interruptions breaks Albright’s concentration and the hog uses the moment to escape. The farmer continues. If that’s your hog, and I got no reason to suspect it ain’t, then you can do whatever you want to. But you’re holdin up traffic here. . . . I never knowed anybody to hogfarm out of a taxicab anyway.
This book has humor, but it is dark, too. Consider this scene with E. W. Bloodworth, the character played by Kristofferson. Bloodworth’s wife Julia has sent word to her father (Bradshaw) to come for her. Bloodworth vows to kill him before he will allow him to take her away. He’s here because I sent for him, Julia said. I don’t know why anybody would send for a dead man, he told her. I’ll stretch out Bradshaws till they hold each other up like trees felled in a thick woods. . . . They ain’t quit makin shells. They ain’t quit makin caskets. I’ll stretch out Bradshaws from the biggest to the least, till they have to import caskets out of other states, till they run dry on that and bury them without caskets, till they finally throw up their hands and let em lay where they fall.
He held her finally back to his chest and the soapy smell of her hair in his face and clamped in arms that would not constrain her urgency. If you do that, you’ll have to kill me, too, she finally said. Did I ever hurt you? he asked. You hurt me ever breath I take, she told him. He laid the pistol aside and watched the door close behind her and watched her climb aboard the wagon and watched the old man speak not to her but to the mules, popping the lines and turning the wagon into the dusty roadbed, watched the wagon diminish into the white dust until there was nothing to see but dust settling, and watching even that.
One more excerpt about Bloodworth’s banjo playing. He had a tale to tell. He made you believe it was your tale as well. Police came to tell him to move it along and stayed to listen. Sometimes they even dropped their own half dollars into the hat. Bloodworth sang songs he’d heard and songs he’d made up and songs he’d stolen from other singers. He sang about death and empty beds and songs that sounded like invitations until you thought about them for a while and then they began to sound like threats. Violence ran through them like heat lightning, winter winds whistled them along like paper cups turning hollowly down frozen streets.
Why would you leave those scenes out of a movie?