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Southern Discomfort 

Barry Hannah, into the murk

Wednesday, Aug 29 2001

Given that Barry Hannah is Mississippi-born, a brilliant prose stylist and often laugh-out-loud funny, he’s been logically compared to Mark Twain and Faulkner, but the deeper truth is that he‘s a hardcore original working in a heavily fermented English of his own vintage. His sentences tend to a charged density so dazzling that, over the haul of a long work, they can unfortunately cancel each other out and cause a novel’s energy to dissipate. Up to now -- since his first collection, Airships -- Hannah has been rightly acclaimed as a master of the short story; but just as rightly nobody‘s quite stepped up to the plate to call him a master novelist. His latest novel, Yonder Stands Your Orphan, suffers from remnants of his trademark diffusion, but is at the same time Hannah’s most intricately structured and most successful long work -- a thick gumbo of demon-driven souls, all of whom (be they black, white, filthy-rich, trash-poor, psychotic andor seeking God) are one with the tortuously overgrown fishing country around Vicksburg, Mississippi.

Hannah can conjure this landscape and its history in a single breath:

Scores of corpses rested below the lakes, oxbows, river ways and bayous of these parts, not counting the skeletons of Grant‘s infantry. The country was built to hide those dead by foul deed, it sucked at them. Back to the flood of 1927, lynchings, gun and knife duels were common stories here. Muddy water made a fine lost tomb.

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Two particularly resilient skeletons nevertheless pop back to the surface: a mother and child sunken in the trunk of a car some years back. Man Mortimer, the child’s father, ordered the burial, though he was not -- technically -- guilty of killing them. (His cold rejection drove the mother to a murder-suicide.) He didn‘t even drive them into the swamp. For that he hired Egan, who in those days was, as he tells congregations now, a sinner and motorcycle outlaw, but has since been reborn as a fire-breathing preacher. The gang of young boys who find the bodies are far more interested in salvaging the car than in solving any murder mysteries -- they prefer to wire the skeletons up in a Halloween tableau that they can tote around in a toy wagon.

Even so, this discovery prompts cold sweats of Christian conscience in Egan and accelerates an already deadly breakdown in Mortimer. ”Mortimer,“ he tells one man he’s thinking of stabbing, ”means death by sea.“ After he‘s stabbed several men in random fits of jealousy, slashed one woman’s thigh and (as a favor to the victim‘s bitter son) decapitated an owner of a bait shack, his aria on his own name grows longer and more schizy: ”Death by sea or death by mother. Morte de Mer or Morte de Mere. Merman, Seaman, see. Did anybody tell you I now own a big piece of this store, John?“

John is John Roman, a black veteran of the Korean and Vietnam wars whose serenity as he sits fishing is much admired by Melanie Wooten -- a well-to-do 70-year-old widow whose beauty allows her to pass for a woman in her late 40s. Melanie indulges a flirtation with Roman, who is married, but takes up instead with the county’s young sheriff, Facetto -- a handsome Easterner who affects a local accent and is manifestly more interested in local theater than he is in solving Mortimer‘s crime spree, about which he is clueless. ”This is the work of a teenager who may be having early bursts of schizophrenia,“ he says. ”Most likely. I’ll get the prints, but it won‘t lead anywhere, I’ll bet. The girl won‘t even remember doing it, I guess. Tragic.“ The locals, many of whom could guess Mortimer as a prime suspect on the first pass, are either too lethargic to board the necessary trains of thought, or too blissfully entertained by their protector’s ineptitude to speak up. (”All agreed the sheriff was a strange do-nothing about these troubles. That he was just another fraud of vocality, like Bill Clinton. The law was fast cars with whip antennae racing around from one unsolved atrocity to another, screaming radios. Shield on the door ought to read Late, Lard-ass, Last to Know.“)

Still others are too preoccupied with their more personal obsessions to care. Egan‘s uncle Carl Bob and a World War II vet, Ulrich, hold that human cruelty to humans is a distant second to what humans perpetrate upon animals, and their religiosity over this bleeds into Egan’s sermons: ”We should commence living for the animals,“ he tells his flock. ”Their ecstasy over the day, their oneness with the infinite. Their lack of memory. They are our heaven, our friends.“ Meanwhile, Gene and Penny Ten Hoor, two real estate speculators, are so defeated by the region‘s junglelike resistance to development and so unhinged over the loss of their only child that they open a summer camp for orphans -- one that Mortimer raids with a slick grin and a handshake, hunting young talent for the porno videos he produces in the more stable and legitimate part of his waking. Still further down the lake is Max Raymond -- a former doctor, presumably the hero of Hannah’s 1980 novel, Ray (though Hannah deliberately blurs the connection). Raymond is married to a Cuban jazz singer named Mimi ”The Coyote“ Suarez, a beauty ”made for tiny dresses.“ Mimi likes to sing naked when she‘s alone (or thinks she is) in their heavily isolated back yard, and the team of voyeurs that eventually topples out of the shrubs makes for one of the book’s more uproarious confrontations.

If the novel sounds overcrowded, it is -- but this is as much the point as it is a defect. Perhaps it‘s a mistake to think of Hannah as a novelist at all. At this length, he’s a narrative poet on the Homeric model, specifically T.E. Lawrence‘s prose translation of Homer. As with Lawrence, Hannah’s lived-in, scholarly fidelity to the wilderness and warfare that he must translate into prose causes words to detonate in such a way that they make moments of the most fantastic action and insight feel anchored in the everyday.

One overriding drawback generated by such a huge cast, all of whom have vivid names and colorful declensions of nicknames (all of which are in steady play), is that for the first 60 pages or so one is constantly flipping back and forth to keep track of who‘s who. Man Mortimer, Max Raymond, Melanie and Mimi can all sound like one person, scanned fast, so one is constantly obliged to slow, and keep sorting, or seek clues to people’s identities in the nuances -- a treasure hunt made rewarding by Hannah‘s prose, whose least syllables teem with lost doubloons, gold sand and underwater glitter. Moreover, the notion that identity is fluid, that one person’s murderous impulses are of a piece with the greedy urges prompting everybody else‘s petty conquests, is of core importance to how Hannah envisions the world. All comedy and tragedy in Yonder Stands Your Orphan flow from this unexpected oneness.

Mortimer is driven to jealous rages because all his life he has looked like someone famous -- when young, he reminded people of the singer Fabian; in middle age he reminds them of Conway Twitty. (He has never, he laments, resembled himself.) The widow Melanie, by contrast, has led a life of such exemplary self-possession that she is driven to merge sensually with her polar opposites. Raymond and Mimi may enjoy a fiery sexual chemistry that is the envy of every onlooker, but the inner lining of their unity is turned outward by Hannah so as to reveal its connection to the sorrows of everybody else. ”He was both voyeur and actor when he took her, in all her spread beauty, but the part of voyeur was increasing and he knew he was a filthy old haint, as far from Christ as a rich man.“

The specter of Christ haunts these woods a bit more clownishly and forgivingly than he does those of Flannery O’Connor, but shame and the craving for redemption are no less stubborn. One can object that, in the end, certain of the characters‘ fates are too glibly achieved, but one can’t deny the haunting totality of the novel‘s effect. Overpopulous though it may be, Hannah’s world takes after nature in this respect. His story‘s meaning is embedded in the crowded riot of its events and the muddy thickets of people’s warring despairs, and hopes.

  • Barry Hannah, into the murk

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