Thursday, September 8, 2016

"Yonder Stands Your Orphan," Barry Hannah: "you laugh with them and at them"

"This Sunday morning Man Mortimer and Max Raymond sat in the pews of the same church, a little white steepled one in a glen set among live oaks and three acres of clover. The jungle swamps encroached on and squared the glen, deep green to black. Loud birds and alligators groaning in their mating season roamed in songs from bayou to bayou. Some fish walked on land in this season."

(from Yonder Stands Your Orphan)

Barry Hannah's novels are a traveling circus, full of wonders and (luckily for readers) writing that is just as entertaining. He wanders a Southern route this side of Gothic, but that faded and overworked territory -- land of the Jim Beam dysfunctional, the bloody macabre, or the just plain good-ol'boy weird -- really doesn't contain him.

His first novel, Geronimo Rex (1972), was a funny coming-of-age tale nominated for the National Book Award. He achieved some fame with his book of stories, High Lonesome (1996); his last, Yonder Stands Your Orphan (Grove Press, 2001), a lyrical tale of murder and mayhem, evoked comparisons to "Tennessee Williams, Flannery O'Connor, Harry Crews, Peter Dexter and Clyde Edgerton all squished together." That's some company, and each with their own potent mix of summer honeysuckle and rye whiskey.

Hannah has gone on ahead to scout new and even more mysterious locations (the Oxford, Mississippi writer died unexpectedly March 1, 2010 at the age of 67). He should enjoy discussing the dissipations of family and kin with Mr. Faulkner himself after having won the Faulkner Prize for Geronimo Rex. Here he talks to Fiona Maazel in an excerpt from a 2001 interview published in BOMB magazine, and in it he describes the idea of the novel's small town characters -- a group that gathers on a pier to trade boasts and outright lies, that is aging rapidly but not yet wise, and familiar to themselves in their habits.

Barry Hannah: I wanted to get a grouping. It’s kind of an Our Town. Only darker. And more conscious of real evil. These folks appeared in my stories. I already had a cast, except for Man Mortimer and a few others.

Fiona Maazel: Right, the pier crowd. Why do you keep returning to them, to these old cranks who figure in so many of your other stories?

BH: Obviously, I’m obsessed with the people on the pier. People desperate and older and almost frantic to have a moment of clarity and some peace. I just found it to be a comfortable theater to work in. I also wanted to see how they would react to modern, true evil.

FM: They are all old, but they seem to lack the one thing the old are supposed to have, namely wisdom.
BH: They are the uneasy old.

FM: You do have a lot of stuff in the novel about how people need to seek out evil and hurt and pain to feel vivified, to feel alive, uneasy or not.

BH: That’s right. Max Raymond certainly does. He even says so. It does seem strange that one would make that conscious choice. I actually believe that’s why people live in big cities. They kind of like the idea of the Mafia around.

FM: Funny, I actually think evil is more likely to find me out where you live in Mississippi—that if I were a homicidal maniac, I’d do my worst in the country. But I think that’s a city phobia.

BH: Nothing bad has ever happened to me in Manhattan. But nothing like what’s happened in my book has ever happened to me in Mississippi, either.

FM: At least one of the organizing principles of the book seems to be the lake where all these old zombies congregate. I know that lakes and water in general show up a lot in your work.

BH: You’ve got it. Water is contemplative. It’s a magnet. Except for Dr. Harvard, none of these characters are well-off vacationers. It’s not a high-scale lake, you know. It’s a fishing lake. It’s more rural, more isolated. It’s more possible for evil such as Man Mortimer to exist there. And nobody seems able to strike against it. There’s no organization. The sheriff himself is unqualified and inept. It’s a kind of backwater place where the civilized codes don’t work. ...

FM: On some level, though, isn’t there fear that you will end up laughing at your characters instead of with them?

BH: You do both. You laugh with them and at them over the course of a novel, certainly. But it seems like I just cannot write in a straight, stern manner for very long before I find that these are human beings, and that the things you read in the paper will always surpass everything you put down. That’s why I don’t feel like I’m a master of the grotesque. I think I’m exploring through human comedy. ...

Hannah's dark humor comes from simply not looking away: "Those that don't avert their eyes are the real artists," he told an interviewer in 1997. "A man will reveal himself quickly, as if a witness at a trial. ... They say that the most natural writer born in America was Mark Twain. He just seems to have begun talking. I think that’s what I’m after."

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