Way Over Yonder in a Minor Key
Barry Hannah Returns to Long-Form Fiction, Unfortunately
Barry Hannah's characters live in an inverted world in which vices are virtues and fishing is one of the few pastimes that won't kill you. Guns, alcohol, drugs, sex, and mayhem are prominent enough to be secondary characters. They fuel the comedy and despair of Hannah's stories and, when he is in top form, make an unholy alliance with his twisted plots and blazing prose.
The Mississippi-based author burst onto the literary scene at age 30 with Geronimo Rex (1972), a comic and chaotic coming-of-age story set in the South during the 1950s and '60s. Hannah's crisp, confident writing earned him the William Faulkner Prize as well as a nomination for the National Book Award.
He followed with another novel, Nightwatchmen (1973), but it was the critically acclaimed short-story collection Airships (1978) that cemented Hannah's reputation as a rising star. The stories earned praise from the likes of Philip Roth and Cynthia Ozick, and Larry McMurtry called Hannah the "best fiction writer to appear in the South since Flannery O'Connor."
Like O'Connor, Hannah's talents seem best suited to short form: Other than his extraordinary debut and the wildly inventive, American Book Award-nominated novel Ray (1980), Hannah's best works have been his story collections. That hasn't stopped him from writing novels; he's published nine in his 30-year career.
For the past decade, Hannah has wisely stuck to short fiction, publishing the collections Bats Out of Hell (1993) and High Lonesome (1996) and giving weight to the theory that his recent examinations of the dark side of human nature were more palatable in small doses. Unfortunately, Hannah's most recent novel, Yonder Stands Your Orphan, further proves the point.
In his first novel in a decade, Hannah ventures into the fictional Farté Cove off Mississippi's Yazoo River, where old men congregate to fish and swap tall tales. The cove was an ideal setting for the stories that kicked off Airships and Bats Out of Hell, but this time the author overstays his welcome.
Yonder contains a number of inspired passages, but Hannah's style never transcends his absurdly oppressive plot, as physically and emotionally scarred characters commit horrendous acts against one another for the sheer hell of it. The ensemble cast might better suit a series of offbeat short stories. A husband and wife literally nail each other to the walls of their cabin, sober up, reconcile, and found an orphanage to transform children into a separatist militia. A new sheriff fakes a Southern accent, beds a senior citizen, and practices his role in a community play instead of doing his job. Two children find two skeletons in an abandoned car, play with the bones, and drive the car through the Mississippi roads. Taken as a whole, however, the carnage and despair are overwhelming.
The black heart of this book is Man Mortimer, a pornographer, loan shark, pimp, and drug dealer. Mortimer bears a striking physical resemblance to the late country singer Conway Twitty, and he randomly slashes people with a box cutter or stabs them with knives. Over the course of the novel, Mortimer severely disfigures a romantic rival at a high school football game, slashes the face of an evangelical preacher, leads an all-out assault on the armed orphanage, and beheads the owner of a bait store and stuffs a football into the neck of his corpse.
Mortimer receives occasional comeuppance from other people's knives, a viper's nest, and shootouts that cost him an ear and his mother, but most characters tolerate him well beyond reason. Hannah's Mississippi is a ghost world in which people place little value on the past or present. Yonder Stands Your Orphan is at best a joyless fever dream of the New South. The author best expresses this vision in the voice of an old man who comments that modern people don't love each other as much as they used to:
People are not even in the present moment. Everybody's been futurized. You look in those eyes and see they're not home, they're some hours ahead at least. . . . It's all like meeting people who have just departed. Old men and women don't look wise anymore. They are just aged children. . . . They're all homesick for when they were real.
This sentiment echoes throughout the novel as Hannah skewers the homogenization of a culture. Lexuses and SUVs glisten and glide through the landscape as casinos, Big Marts, and pawnshops suck the collective life out of the community. The remaining residents are turned into virtual zombies, soulless beings that commit unspeakable offenses against each other and any living victims they find. The zombie image may be an apt analogy for a modern culture losing its soul, but that single notion doesn't excuse the novel's awkward pacing, absurdities, and gratuitous violence.
One passage in Yonder Stands Your Orphan may, however, offer an explanation for Hannah's recent track record as a novelist. Describing a doctor-turned-jazz musician, he writes, "It was a puzzle why he played certain needy and vicious ways, or would even want to, like a tomcat dragging way from a long fight down an alley. Imprecations, hisses, mewlings, threats. Why develop this style when there were so many others?"
With the exception of his short-story collections, Hannah's recent work displays a similar technical competence and artistic callousness. The rhetorical question reads like an inside joke within the novel. If Hannah doesn't seriously address it soon, it's going to be hard to find an audience willing to sit through his next performance.