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:

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