Word has it that Barry Hannah once pulled a gun on a classroom of writing students, and not because they sucked. It was a pedagogical move. When he had the gun and waved it around, he explained, all eyes were on him, all lives in his hands. The lesson: The writer should strive to hold the metaphorical gun, compelling attention, fear, and envy. A reader won’t be able to look away without risking his life. Inattention will have grave consequences.
It’s a form of literary terrorism Hannah has excelled at over the years. His weakness, according to some critics, has involved a lack of ammunition when it comes to novels. With his stories, as in his classic and devastating collection Airships, he’s fully armed, machine guns blasting. It hurts to read these stories. They are a barrage of insight and original language. But his novels, such as Ray and The Tennis Handsome, while often outlandish and brilliant in parts, have not proved as memorable.
Hannah’s first novel in 10 years should finally rescue him from the dubious ghetto some critics have created for fine story writers whose novels have failed to win a larger following. It’s an ambitious ensemble piece with enough plot, psychology, and landscape—wet, crappy landscape stuffed with ruined cars and people—to fill four volumes. Listing the plot would be beside the point, and although being slightly beside the point is Hannah’s specialty—his digressions themselves could make most writers drool with envy—suffice it to say that Yonder Stands Your Orphan (a title lifted from a Bob Dylan song) is a character-driven bad-mood piece that attends somewhat athletically to the manifold ways people can achieve true misery. And it takes place near a body of water.
Among the book’s eccentric lake-dwellers are Man Mortimer, a pimp who resembles a famous, dead country singer; Max Raymond, a shamed doctor turned saxophonist; Mimi, his sexy wife and a singer with Raymond’s Latin band; Sheriff Facetto, a poseur lawman who carries on an affair with a 72-year-old widow, Melanie Wooten; and Gene and Penny Ten Hoor, married failures who bomb themselves out with drugs, nail their limbs to a wall, and then repent by opening a camp for orphans.
They all come together for binges of romance, violence, or apathy, depending on their needs, and their collisions allow Hannah to show off his facility for sketching disturbed and terminally sad human beings. A minor character, a cheerleader, “ignored all around, stared at the powdered dirt on her shoes as if her face had fallen there.” About a woman whose two teenagers are missing, Hannah writes, “They seemed like vagrant lies she had told once, in the form of children.” The colorful, outlandish attributes that Hannah assigns to his characters might suggest that they cartoonishly jape and flail at his behest to compose a grotesque, Southern-gothic horrorscape. And maybe they sometimes do—everything terrible here is also invariably slightly funny: “Dee felt a groggy box of air around her, dusk shrunk down. Outside of which panic slept like big dogs.”
Hannah doesn’t much want to depress anyone. He doses his sadness with a giggle. The brighter side of people does not concern him, but he equally shirks the narcissism that can accompany a vision as dismal as his. The effect is of a cartoon made by Sam Peckinpah scripted by Preston Sturges: a witty, cynical bloodfest shot in primary colors. The violence, of which there is plenty, lacks a certain . . . violence. It is a fun violence, safely enclosed in the book. A corpse’s head is replaced with a football. Men keep catching knives in the genitals.
The novel’s attention flirts all over the lake, bound by no apparent allegiance. Committing to a main character is a form of narrative monogamy that Hannah seems to reject. His eye wanders over his disturbed cast and plunges at will into their heads, sometimes finding no more than a grunting consciousness inside. It’s a surplus of portraiture that asks for an energetic reader. Writing this good is somehow . . . tiring. A reader gets no downtime between the brilliant parts. It’s a shame that Hannah has so little contemporary competition, because his readers may be out of shape for such richness, such relentless, hell-bent writing. Line by line, Hannah beats on his sentences until they give in and turn beautiful. Readers who underline good sentences could put down their pens and consider the entire book underlined. In the end, this manic ambition for language can be at odds with other, less complicated pleasures: immersion in the story, sympathy for the characters. You don’t really read this book, you ride it.
Hannah’s skill at choice phrases can sometimes leave his characters standing around like stunned statues. In the end it is the phrases that stay in the mind after you read the book, not the plight of the characters. But phrases, after all, are what characters are made of, and here Barry Hannah has made a fine novel’s worth of them.