Book Review: Readings
Reviewed by Shawn Badgley, Fri., Aug. 17, 2001
Yonder Stands Your Orphanby Barry Hannah
Atlantic Monthly Press, 336 pp., $24
Albert, Himselfby Jeff W. Bens
Delphinium, 181 pp., $14 (paper)
The "clean, hard images" Barry Hannah says he admires in the work of such authors as Ernest Hemingway are, oddly enough, rare sightings in his own, depending on your interpretation of "clean" and "hard." Messy yet stark? Confounding? Challenging, maybe? Clean, I think, is definitely out. But no matter what your interpretation, Hannah doesn't keep his distance -- from language, bloodshed, sex, whatever. He gets right in there, just like Man Mortimer, the murderous antagonist of Yonder Stands Your Orphan and a high-rolling, SUV-dealing pimp whose hero is Larry Flynt, and whose doppelganger is Conway Twitty.
In Hannah's first novel in 10 years (and the first he has written sober, the first since he beat lymphoma), Eagle Lake, Miss., just north of Vicksburg and hugging the Louisiana border, is a town in trouble. Mortimer is bored with its population, a community whose lake -- and bait & tackle shop -- is its main draw. Fishing. Cars. Sex. Drugs. An eatery known only as "the bad restaurant." Some beautiful people, a truckload of black hearts. The whole place is bored, but it gets exciting for everybody -- the reader, especially -- real quick.
There's Ulrich, a WWII pilot with a walker and emphysema, who along with former priest Carl Bob Feeney becomes a prophet of animal rights. Byron Egan is Feeney's nephew and a priest himself; he was once a Harley-riding, gangbanging meth peddler. Reclusive Nita, married to John Harvard (a former surgeon whose name explains the rest), is dying of cancer, as is John Roman's wife Bernice. Roman, a (clichéd) towering black fisherman who served bravely in Korea and Vietnam, rides a motorbike and listens to Chet Baker. Melanie Wooten is 72 but gorgeous -- she adores Roman but is in love with the newly arrived Sheriff Facetto ("He had a good build and short hair and, when he neglected to modulate his voice, did not sound remotely Southern. Delaware, maybe. He admitted he liked espresso very much and was pleased there was a machine here, along with very modern books ..."). There's the "sex bomb" Dee Allison and her sons Ponce, Isaac, and Jacob, the tackle-shop owner Pepper Farté and his sinister son Sidney, and saxophonist/poet Max Raymond, husband of the Latina jazz singer named "Coyote," but himself devoid of any color whatsoever. Except, of course, that he's ultimately Eagle Lake's best chance at stopping Man Mortimer, who shoves carpet knives, finger-ring razors, and footballs where his victims' heads used to be.
Sound remotely Southern? It's Mississippi, for Christ's sake. It's also Hannah's masterpiece, a biblically violent morality play and something he could only write now, decades after Geronimo Rex and Airships, decades after Bob Dylan's "It's All Over Now, Baby Blue," from which "yonder stands your orphan" comes. Hannah, who intrudes omnisciently through Eagle Lake's preachers and poets, documents Mortimer's transition from bad to worst with a sneaky credulity, as Faulkner once did with Flem Snopes. While his swampy plot is often frustratingly discontinuous, his prose is volcanically consistent, solidified lava spread over a landscape, still sparking. Yonder Stands Your Orphan is funny like that: It creeps with the poetry of Blake and crawls with the pulp of a cheap Gothic. And, in its almost perverted advocacy for animals and children (you don't love them like Hannah does, trust me), it's pretty damn interesting.
Fellow Southerner Jeff W. Bens' Albert, Himself, isn't nearly as interesting, and how could it be, really? It takes place in New Orleans, amid the sodden city's parochial streets and the smokiness of its hotels and churches and restaurants. Albert is a fishmonger and thirtysomething nobody; he's in love with Chelsea, an angelic restaurant hostess, while at the same time in love with Eileen, the mother of his child, and Audrey, the child herself. He lives with his widowed mother, who "loves him more than Jesus Christ," and the ghost of his father, to whom he will never live up. There is honesty in Bens' debut novel, an earnest NutraSweetness that betrays his naïve minimalism to Hannah's evangelistic maximalism. All you need is love, Albert's plight seems to prove; everything might work out in the end. Bens succeeds in evoking familial urban life, but fails in producing a novel of any lasting worth. His language is sparsely staccato, lyrical like Hannah's but incapable of capturing the grittiness of his subject matter. It's unfair, perhaps, to compare Bens with a writer who must now rank as a great American master, but at the same time it's entirely appropriate: He simply has a long way to go.