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.
...Gay’s writing doesn’t capture Middle Tennessee—it is Middle Tennessee, as much a part of the landscape as its fields and barns and creeks. Every turn of phrase, every scene describes with effortless perfection the curve of a hill, the angle of an eave, the lilt in a drawl ... alive with the lived authenticity that makes his fiction so intensely real and important ... But ... this new novel is uneven, with a structure and pacing that feel unbalanced ... Some characters are fully fleshed-out, only to disappear in the text; others, who end up with major roles toward the end, are thinner than paper ... What makes The Lost Country worth reading is Gay’s descriptive mastery, more mature and on fuller display here than even his best earlier efforts ... Nor is there much in the way of plot, at least in the overarching-events-in-a-line sense. Gay is much more interested in mood and texture—in particular the mood and texture of rural Tennessee in the 1950s, on the cusp of entering the modern world ... Everyone in the book is struggling for meaning—direction, purpose, status, desire, permanence, whatever it takes to pull them up from the anonymous poverty of their past ... I read every word of The Lost Country with hunger—Gay is the sort of writer who could make tax forms exciting—but none more than those of the last several pages.