Online Edition: Fall 2001

Yonder Stands Your Orphan

Barry Hannah

Atlantic Monthly Press ($24)

by Brian Beatty

What an earnest fool I used to be. During my undergraduate and graduate school days, as I presumed to be studying the art and the craft of creative writing, I somehow convinced myself there was just one way to write serious literary fiction: the crazed way Barry Hannah seemed to do it.

The conspicuous lust and violence of Hannah's fiction lured me early. As time passed I learned to appreciate the splendor of his sentences. For my money, nobody spoke the confounded tongue of the late twentieth century better than Hannah: his desperate, doomed characters lived and spoke true poetry. The novels and short story collections of all other writers I measured against my favorite of his books. I rated the short stories of my peers in workshops against them, too. And I hardly spared myself. My own fledgling fiction attempts often resulted from laborious exercises such as retyping Hannah stories from beginning to end to better imagine how he did it.

A genuine zealot, I championed even Hannah's slim, inconsequential books (the autobiographical Hey Jack! and Captain Maximus and Boomerang) to anybody with ears, including my graying literature professors (dullards and prudes who didn't read Americans or literature written after the nineteenth century). I even mailed Hannah a short story I had written--in hopes of great praise, I suppose. My hero returned my story in the SASE I'd provided with considerable edits and notes, including a suggestion that I check out Beckett and Joyce--"for variety." I don't recall if I confessed in the letter I sent along with my manuscript how I had read and reread his books until I could recite lengthy passages from memory, or if I'd mentioned how I maintained an extensive Hannah archive, though it was basically just a manila file folder stuffed with stapled photocopies: his early student publications; magazine and literary journal interviews; and reviews, good and bad, for all of his books.

More likely, my obsession revealed itself in the vaguely familiar rhythms of my mediocre prose.

Eventually, the summer after graduate school, I was rescued at a writing conference. I was there to study with fiction writer and magazine journalist Bob Shacochis, a student from Hannah's tenure as a professor at Iowa, it turned out. The afternoon my story was up for critique, Shacochis kept his opinions to himself until my peers were done with their criticisms and the table was quiet. Even then he didn't say a word. He simply pushed his copy of my story back across the table at me with a single written note: "One Barry Hannah is enough." His criticism could not have been truer or more obvious. At long last I was forced to admit that there wasn't much call for literary impersonation, regardless how flattering.

So I quit prose fiction for easier work. Hannah, on the other hand, never quit--not even after a book or three that insinuated he was possibly imitating himself. Instead, he wrote through his apparent (not so) dry period, and survived to defy his critics. In fact, his steady, respectable return to form could be a model for many more literary authors than it would be polite to list.

The first suggestion that readers had not seen the last of Hannah was 1993's Bats Out of Hell. A collection of new stories and rewritten chapters salvaged from his lesser novels, the book was surly and mean--and probably Hannah's best since the widely acclaimed Airships. High Lonesome, a small batch of stories in which a more expansive, more mature narrative voice replaced both the Hendrix-inspired prose riffs of Hannah at his best and the clipped drawl of his dim period, appeared in 1997. This new voice worked better in some of the book's stories than others, but more importantly it revealed that Hannah was not content repeating the accomplishments of his earlier work.

Yonder Stands Your Orphan, Hannah's new novel, is his first since Never Die, his elliptical and unfulfilling Wild West novel. It's also, very likely, someone's idea of a Faulkner book (though probably neither Hannah's nor Faulkner's). Set in a secluded lake resort town populated by complicated Southern folks experiencing a wide variety of emotional and psychic hurts, the book catches up with characters and relationships reprised from Bats Out of Hell's opening story, "High-Water Railers." But unlike Hannah's expansion of a short story into the slim novel The Tennis Handsome, this book doesn't bother recycling much of the original story's plot or tone. Everything about this novel is darker and sadder than Hannah's previous work.

Probably saddest of all is Man Mortimer, the smalltime pimp and car rental tycoon whose descent into madness visits treachery upon an entire town. Each of the book's remaining characters (and there are many) exists in relation to Mortimer, but suffers a terrible secret or past, too. Hannah leaves the reader to wonder how exactly these people keep from drowning themselves just to be done with their many miseries. While other novelists orchestrate action to progress their narrative, Hannah forgoes strict plotting in favor of humming, electric sentences. As always with his work, wretched, startling lives are revealed every time his characters open their mouths to speak what's troubling their hearts.

It's a redundant comparison to make, but Hannah is more like Faulkner and Flannery O'Connor in Yonder Stands Your Orphan than he has been in any book yet. But he resembles Bob Dylan a little, too. Like Dylan, whose "It's All Over Now Baby Blue" provides this novel's title, Hannah continues reinventing his song and dance, proving what age and life experience almost always have over youth, ambition and envy. This, coincidentally, is the realization that evades Man Mortimer but not the fortunate survivors found in Hannah's most vividly imagined fiction since his stunning debut. Some dumb coincidence? That would handy, but a fib. And if Orphan is tough going for long stretches at a time--Hannah's moral compass spins in wild arcs that defy even the slimmest light between the pages--the rewards include authentic literary art and a folk wisdom that is as valuable as it is simple and true.

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Fall 2001 Table of Contents