Goings-On at Eagle Lake

Christopher Tayler

  • Yonder Stands Your Orphan by Barry Hannah
    Atlantic, 336 pp, £9.99, September 2001, ISBN 1 903809 16 9

Peden, the junkman, is a Baptist lay preacher who plays the electric violin too loud. He lives in a shotgun house at his junkyard, somewhere not far from Eagle Lake, near Vicksburg, Mississippi. Cars and religion are his obsessions, cars being to him ‘like whiskey to an Indian’, although he’s not a teetotaller either. Peden drives a Comet, ‘a thing out of the age of Sputnik’:

When he was drunk and driving it, he imagined he was riding a hydrogen bomb to Los Angeles. But when Peden was sober, he was apt to wonder if there was a god, or not simply a divine wind of oratory investing man, and this divine wind was blind and deaf and cared not in whom or at what time it manifested itself.

This Peden is a minor character, no more or less eccentric than the other Eagle Lake inhabitants who populate Barry Hannah’s new novel. They include Max Raymond, a melancholy saxophonist looking for a vision of God; Byron Egan, a preacher and ex-biker, tattooed on the cheek with a Maltese cross and given to injecting himself with holy water at the pulpit; Melanie Wooten, a beautiful widow in her seventies whose affair with the local sheriff elicits varying degrees of passion, derangement and malevolence from the talkative lakeside codgers; and Sidney Farté, ‘a poisonous old coot’, scion of ‘a pusillanimous French line too lazy and ignorant to anglicise their name in a pleasant manner’. While this cast might sound like a fairly standard collection of Southern Gothic grotesques, Hannah’s prose invests even the most cartoonish of them with a transfiguring wind of oratory that makes Yonder Stands Your Orphan a much richer and stranger book than summaries can easily convey.

Although he has been publishing since the mid-1970s, Hannah isn’t particularly well known outside the United States. His picaresque, autobiographical first novel, Geronimo Rex – a disorganised redneck version of The Adventures of Augie March – won the William Faulkner Prize and a nomination for the National Book Award when it came out in 1976. His 1978 short-story collection, Airships, was even more successful, winning two prizes, but the increasingly fragmented and sometimes mediocre short novels and story collections he published during the 1980s were less warmly received. By 1996, however, his critical stock had recovered enough for High Lonesome to be nominated for the Pulitzer Prize. Yonder Stands Your Orphan is his first novel for ten years.

The plot, such as it is, revolves around the depredations of a demonic big-city outsider called Man Mortimer, ‘a gambler, a liaison for stolen cars and a runner of whores, including three Vicksburg housewives’. Mortimer starts to take an interest in cutting people when he finds out that his sort-of girlfriend, Dee Allison – a single mother, nurse and ‘nun of apathy’ – has been unfaithful to him. Dee’s feral twin sons, meanwhile, find in a dried-up sinkhole a car containing the skeletons of Mortimer’s former lover and her child; they clean the skeletons up and take to carting them round the woods. Mortimer is initially concerned with avenging himself on Dee and reclaiming the evidence, but he soon graduates to fairly random attacks on all who cross his path – all, that is, except the poisonous Sidney Farté, who is delighted when Mortimer chops his father’s head off and replaces it with a football, since this speeds his inheritance of the family bait store.

Not all of Mortimer’s outrages are so violent, and some of them are flatly surreal – as when he blocks the path of a mixed-race couple on a motorbike with his tinted-window Lexus SUV:

The two of them walked up to the window, a bright maw next to opening but not. There was some activity behind the smoke. It was a human tongue circling the glass, licking and sucking it. They could see nothing except the mouth working dimly. But the glass went down inches, and Man Mortimer looked over the top of the window at them. Devoid of expression, yanked-in tongue, flat, overall. The rearview reflected the ones in the back who did not know they were revealed. It was old Sidney without his shirt, very mottled and speckled, silvered concave chest. Marcine and Bertha, the car-lot girl, were working on him.

Such encounters have a soul-sapping effect on all who experience them. But the authorities are unwilling, or unable, to intervene. Egan, the preacher, is indebted to Mortimer from the days when he was a methadone addict; he dumped the car and bodies in the sinkhole years before. Facetto, the new sheriff, is preoccupied by his love for Melanie Wooten (‘Hot Granny’), to the disgust of many; he’s also more skilled in amateur dramatics than crime prevention. Various interested parties – including Egan, the saxophonist Max Raymond and John Roman, a Vietnam veteran who is also the only black character in the book – eventually decide to take action against Mortimer, but their plans seem worryingly ineffectual.

Nor are these the only goings-on around Eagle Lake: indeed, Mortimer’s reign of terror takes up a surprisingly small part of the narrative. Much time is spent in the company of Egan’s uncle, Carl Bob Feeney, an ancient Irish ex-priest who boasts of his likeness to ‘the expatriate atheist writer Samuel Beckett’. With his equally decrepit friend Ulrich, Feeney devotes his remaining days to rampaging around the lakeside sermonising on behalf of the animals, even inducing Egan to recite ‘poetry – was it?’ containing such lines as ‘The snake may be kind, we cannot know. Even our gentlest kill them with/Expedition, the automatic twelve-gauge shotgun.’ There’s also Dr Harvard, a more appropriately aged suitor who pines helplessly over Melanie Wooten. And across the lake, ignored by all, the insane Gene and Penny Ten Hoor have been building an idyllic summer camp for orphans which is quietly turning into an armed apocalyptic militia. (The book’s title comes from a line of Bob Dylan’s: ‘Yonder stands your orphan with his gun.’)

Boiled down like this, the novel sounds frenetic and unreflective. But while it’s not short of lurid incidents, the book’s structure and pacing are wilfully undramatic, with much of the more outrageous business taking place off-stage. The narration sticks close to the characters, filling in their backgrounds and appearances, sometimes slipping into interior monologue but mostly bombarding them with stray memories and perceptions in the third person. Few of them take a very cheerful view of themselves or the part of the world they live in, ‘flat land uselessly rich still, its old profiteers scattered’. The predominant moods are apathy and quiet desperation. Even those with spiritual aspirations don’t have much hope of meeting God, and if they did, Max Raymond suspects, they’d ‘come too early and wearing the wrong things’. ‘When you had too few stories,’ John Roman surmises, ‘you went mad’; and although the state is filled with ‘men and women nostalgic by age 11’, the old lies don’t work any more:

It was common wisdom that the South would have given the slaves their freedom the instant they kicked the North’s ass, but that the slaves would have chosen to remain. This thought had brought tears to the eyes of many, many old Southern frauds . . . The South was so good. Why was this never discussed? Someone should make an objective documentary, but you couldn’t have it now, all this correctness.

As for the wired and entrepreneurial New South, it’s represented by Man Mortimer, who doesn’t ‘know the dates’ and doesn’t like ‘history or time’. He finds it strangely bracing to eat in a restaurant built over a Civil War mass grave, ‘as if the dead boys dancing with death had built it just for him 135 years later in a flush Vicksburg, very wide and rolling’. He hates nature, ‘wishing more of it was a rug and smelled like new cars’. Most of all, he’s profoundly inauthentic, ‘a dangerous nullity’. Even his face is not his own: he looks like a second-rate celebrity, bearing an uncanny resemblance to Conway Twitty (a tall-haired country singer who resembled, in turn, a less debauched-looking Gary Glitter). Later still he is mistaken for ‘that lounge comic with the enormous head and hair, Brother Dave Gardner’. Mortimer achieves a kind of apotheosis at a party where the dancers are masked as Reagan, Nixon, Alan Greenspan and Hillary Clinton: ‘Club of the Now!’ he shouts. And when he hurts people, it’s because he wants to make them as inauthentic as he is: ‘Maybe I cut because I want them to have no face too.

Hannah himself is rumoured to have pulled a gun on a class of writing students, and violence has been a constant theme in his books. In particular, his characters are always asking one another to hit or shoot them. There’s an extraordinary scene in his 1980 novella, Ray, in which a man named DeSoto begs someone called Wently to shoot him in the thigh because he needs ‘some of the pain’. Wently complies, and leaves, we’re laconically told, ‘with a new perspective’. Harry Monroe, the narrator of Geronimo Rex, experiences an epiphany when he randomly menaces an organist with a gun: ‘Life shot through me as if existence really meant something. Before pulling the trigger in the auditorium, I seemed to be only verging toward life – say, like a man eating colour photographs. But now the excitement was hounding me.’

In scenes like these the characters experience violence as something that brings them closer to the real. In Yonder Stands Your Orphan, on the other hand, it takes them deeper into unreality. Throughout the book, Mortimer’s crimes seem to diminish him. He starts to age so fast he’s almost unrecognisable; his empire collapses, and by the end of the novel he’s ‘hardly anything but a big head with a mass of white hair on it’. He wonders when ‘the day would be that they would let him back into real life, which he had once thought possible’. Mortimer is not alone in this – most of the characters are afflicted by similar feelings at one point or another. There’s much talk of zombies and the living dead; Max Raymond sees them everywhere, ‘imitating one another, mimicking the next mimicker in no time, no space, no place, no history’. And Mortimer isn’t the only character who looks like someone else: his downfall begins when, to his horror, he sees one of his victims returned from hospital with his face reconstructed in the likeness of Twitty’s. Feeney looks like Basil Rathbone, Ulrich ‘an elderly Mortimer Snerd’, and Egan at one point takes on ‘the appearance of the actor Strother Martin’. ‘They’re all homesick for when they were real,’ Ulrich says. ‘Orphans? Who isn’t an orphan, I ask you?’

While the set-up mimics a fable about a community’s attempts to cope with an irruption of vigorously contemporary evil, Mortimer’s crimes are presented as only the most extreme symptom of the deracination afflicting almost everyone around Eagle Lake. Despite its down-home preponderance of bait stores, preachers, bass fishing and quiet country roads, the novel frequently tips over into the frazzled territory of white noise and simulacra, ‘postwar, Postmodern, posthuman’, where hospital patients watch hospital shows on TV and every dish at the bad restaurant comes ‘served with contempt for what used to be human. Rations for an unannounced war.’ Either that, or else the characters are so confounded by the receding tides of history and myth that the resulting landscape might as well be prehistoric. ‘Mastodons, tapir and buffalo had roamed here once. Coyotes had made a vast migration east to Connecticut. You just couldn’t tell even who was where anymore.’ Such scenes could be the work of some backwoods Pynchon or DeLillo.

All this doesn’t quite do justice to the bewildering surface of Hannah’s writing, though. While the themes are hammered home vigorously enough, they proliferate so densely that they soon become overpowering. It’s also difficult to get a sense of how much value we are meant to attach to, for example, the strong vein of religious imagery in the book. ‘Serving his Lord’ is, for Egan, ‘a joy and not insanity at all’; but the religion he and the other characters practise is so wayward and eccentric that they might as well belong to some cargo cult. How, in a novel which sometimes seems fairly respectful of old-time religion, to weigh the proportions of satire and sincerity in a sermon denouncing writers of books as onanists (‘especially those Christian ones that write about lawyers or accountants killing each other’)? Similar countervailing undercurrents run through almost every scene. When Max Raymond recognises Mortimer as an ambassador of wrong, for example, it’s with a drunken speech culminating in the words: ‘I smell evil and it walks like you.’ And if Mortimer represents the forces of evil, it’s difficult to explain the remarkable uselessness of his assaults. For every head successfully chopped off, there are any number of episodes in which he ends up beaten half senseless, stabbed in the testicles or writhing in a tangle of snakes, emitting wails ‘pitched like a woman’s’. It’s hard, too, to explain the obsessive attention the narrative pays to his footwear.

Hannah’s powerfully absurd sense of humour is, however, what makes Yonder Stands Your Orphan worth reading. A number of the characters first appeared in the short-story collections Airships and Bats out of Hell, and it shows: the book is disconnected and episodic, sometimes reading like a jumble of fragments capped by a perfunctory conclusion. It’s almost impossible to keep track of the sprawling cast on first reading, and the proliferation of perspectives makes some of the characterisation oddly thin. But structure has always been Hannah’s weak point; his strengths are stories and prose. Very, very few pages of Yonder Stands Your Orphan go by without several outbursts of memorable and original writing. A car smells ‘like very lonely oil men. It looked like their wallets inside.’ Death is ‘the maw of huge nonsense ahead’. Sidney Farté dances: ‘He troubled the floor with some spastic revision of anything right.’ A Cuban jazz singer is ‘a torso in a storm of mutiny, the legs beneath her another riot trying to run away from her underwear’. Even a life-threatening disease sounds ominously funny: ‘It had its own dreams. Big violent birds and prehistoric sauria. A man with an enormous head who searched for a hat and killed many. Hats or people.’

Yonder Stands Your Orphan is more sombre and involved than Hannah’s earlier writings, and the manic headlong rush of Ray or Airships would probably make a better introduction to his work. But it’s a formidably thoughtful and comic achievement nevertheless – amazingly so, given that the author was both sober and undergoing chemotherapy when he wrote it.