This is a road novel without a destination. It’s set in 1955, when Navy veteran Billy Edgewater is traveling east across Tennessee to see his dying father. But Edgewater gets side-tracked so often in his journey—he takes day jobs, falls in with bad company, gets into bar fights, gets tossed in jail—that it’s quickly clear that the side track is the main road and the wandering itself is the homecoming ... The Lost Country is unabashed about its influences, and the allusions to Huckleberry Finn, Cormac McCarthy’s Suttree and Flannery O’Connor’s story Good Country People are so pointed they’re almost homages. James Joyce’s Ulysses is another touchstone, especially in Gay’s love of compound words (he describes 'paintlorn Victorian mansions' and the 'lichencrept concrete of the stairs'). Edgewater is an Odysseus with no inner compass. It may be impossible to say how much Gay’s sudden death contributed to the novel’s indeterminate ending. But Edgewater is like the crumbling Southern towns he passes through, haphazardly drifting toward oblivion, revived only in the beautiful daydream of Gay’s art.
The main character is Billy Edgewater, who’s hitchhitching through the state to visit his dying father, although not with any noticeable urgency. Instead, he seems wearily resigned to whatever happens to him — which, luckily for the reader, is quite a lot ... All the bars he goes into (and he goes into plenty) are populated by an impressive variety of memorable oddballs — from a one-armed conman to an elderly but still enthusiastic prostitute. There’s also a fair sprinkling of such southern gothic staples as fake preachers, weirdly malevolent sheriffs and whiskey-swilling Bible-bashers. By page 17 Edgewater has been beaten up twice — and his adventures, by turns darkly comic and completely hair-raising, don’t get any less lurid from there.
They’re also matched by Gay’s never knowingly understated prose, which certainly strives hard for mythic effect, but on the whole achieves it. It’s hard to think of anything published recently that blasts in such a brilliantly sustained way — or that makes much of contemporary fiction suddenly seem so bloodless by comparison.
Billy Edgewater is a discharged Navy veteran hitchhiking home to see his dying father. Billy, however, is a hard luck case—broke, aimless, and not interested in a family reunion. Once back in Tennessee, he falls in with Roosterfish, a one-armed con man who scams poor people, runs bootleg liquor, and is obsessed with revenge on thieving, cheating bully D.L. Harkness ... Gay’s intense portrayal of the economic despair of 1950s rural Tennessee is authentic and gripping.