William Gay, like William Faulkner, is a writer whose stories are firmly rooted in his native soil (Tennessee in Gay’s case), yet are not merely regional stories but haunting tales of human struggles in the beautiful but alien and perhaps malevolent world of modern times.
“The Paperhanger” may be viewed as a parable of the New South, here characterized by materialism, instability, and solipsism. The story depicts a world in which, in myth at least, there was once beauty, graciousness, and order, but now there is a desolate landscape of derelict mansions, ruined foundries, and abandoned graveyards. A landscape peopled by wealthy foreigners with no essential connection either to the land or to one another, obsequious building contractors, an unctuous and self-serving sheriff, and the paperhanger, a drifter with no apparent connection to any human being or any humane value. However, this is not a story about the South so much as it is a story about a nightmarish modern world of violence and disorder such as the one envisioned in “The Second Coming,” a poem by William Butler Yeats that Dr. Jamahl calls to mind in his despair.
Gay depicts a society in which people have no real identity and are known only by their profession or position in society: the doctor’s wife, the electrician, the backhoe operator, and the paperhanger. The only characters who are identified by name are the four-year-old child, Zeineb, who is too young either to...
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