By Catherine Wagley
By Channing Sargent
By L.A. Weekly critics
By Amanda Lewis
By Catherine Wagley
By Carol Cheh
By Keegan Hamilton
By Bill Raden
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.
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.