Barry Hannah’s slim 1980 novel Ray is a strange wonder, a poem rocket assured to offend any unsuspecting customer who wanders in unaware. I use the term “offend” here loosely: some may be offended by Hannah’s subject matter (booze, drugs, sex, violence), others may be offended by his refusal to submit to any of the conventions we expect from a “novel.” Sure, there are defined characters, conflicts, hints of a plot even, but don’t expect arc, easily recognizable growth, or even linearity. Hannah breaks almost every convention, right down to a first-person narration that shifts occasionally into a kind of second-person meditation and then into a faux-objective third-person voice and then into the third-person free indirect style that marks modernism. The subject Ray careens not just through perspectives but also through time. Here he is in Chapter V (this is the chapter in its entirety)—
I live in so many centuries. Everybody is still alive.
And if Ray is busy stumbling through his own psychic quagmire, shooting down planes in ‘Nam or killing Yankees under Jeb Stuart’s command, he’s also a very real, concrete personality, a doctor, a family man, an alcoholic, a suffering soul trying to navigate children and lovers and patients and neighbors in the swelter of Tuscaloosa, Alabama at the end of Carter’s presidency.
None of this should work, of course, but Hannah’s writing assimilates the reader, inculcates the reader, infects the reader. Ray is a dramatically unstable figure of the old school—misogynist, casually racist, the kind of doctor who finds himself “drinking five bottles of wine a day just to stay cool” — but Hannah’s syntactic powers (which he awards to his narrator Ray) become the core of a novel that by rights should run off the tracks, what with its sharp velocity and manic force and hairpin turns. But Ray doesn’t run off the tracks; it explodes them.
It’s hard to summarize the plot of this fragmentary novel, but I’ll give it a try (and at least share some of Hannah’s remarkable prose). Ray is a country doctor of some note and education, a former pilot who fought and killed in Vietnam, a man with literary ambitions who tries his hand at poetry and occasionally lectures at the local college. Here’s a taste of one of those lectures, showcasing Hannah’s wit, the radically ambivalent place of history in his work, and the core paradoxes of his lead character—
So now, class, I say:
“Americans have never been consistent. They represent gentleness and rage together. Franklin was the inventor of the stove, bifocals, and so on. Yet he abused his neglected family. Jefferson, with his great theories, could not actually release the slaves even though he regularly fornicated with one of them. One lesson we as Americans must learn is to get used to the conrarieties in our hearts and live with them.” Etc.
Lazy Blakean. In addition to his history lectures, Ray has even written a number of papers with unlikely titles about women and depressives and medicine; it is wholly ironic that Ray should lay claims to understanding women and depressed people, let alone understanding how to treat them. During the course of the novel he marries again, to a woman named Westy, and they combine their children into a post-nuclear family that recalls The Brady Bunch on Dexedrine and bourbon and weed (that description sounds far more negative than I intend; I’m trying to telegraph the spirit or tone of the novel, which is difficult, impossible). Ray’s lusty marriage to Westy doesn’t prevent his shambolic philandering. Not all of Ray’s infidelities are born of human weakness though. His love for a young woman named Sister from a white trash family called the Hooches deeply informs the novel; it also allows me another chance to quote from the novel—
Sister is always in love with somebody, sometimes me. There is a capricious wisdom she has about attaching herself to anybody for very long, although her loyalties are fast. She plays the guitar well and has a nice voice that she keeps to herself. Life has been such for her that she has no attitude at all. She expects no sympathy. Two of her teenage lovers died in an accident at the railroad tracks. That’s when I met Sister. I rode down to the tracks, and she was standing there in a long sleeping gown, two weeks after the accident.
“What’s wrong, girl?”
“I growed up.”
Along with Sister, a man named Charlie DeSoto plays a large role in Ray; indeed, at times the novel comes to inhabit his consciousness, as if he was some alter-ego of Ray. That consciousness also becomes unstuck in time. In a passage that recalls (and predates) Blood Meridian, DeSoto (via Ray?) migrates back to the mid 1500s, into the mind of one of Hernando DeSoto’s companions in arms. In a bizarre first-person sequence, this ancient Christian describes slaughtering 4,000 Indians under the command of the war chief Tuscaloosa. History is a nightmare that Ray cannot wake up from.
Ray is a strange fever dream, buzzing with tumult, beauty, filth, and ugly vitality. Our clumsy (anti?)hero cannot seem to reconcile his violent past (both as a fighter pilot in Vietnam and as an American with “contrarieties” in his heart) with his duty as a healer, a doctor. He tells us—
I am infected with every disease I ever tried to cure. I am a vicious nightmare of illnesses. God cured me with a memory that holds everything in my brain. There is no forgetting with me. Every name, every foot, every disease, every piece of jewelry hanging from an ear. Nothing is hazy.
If “Nothing is hazy” then everything is brought into vibrant foreground, all details afforded a prominent place, none pushed to a defining background. If “Nothing is hazy” then everything is hazy; contrariety rules.
Perhaps Ray might be summed up by one of its chapters, LII (again, in its entirety)—
To live and delight in healing, flying, fucking. Here are the men and women.
Hannah might have been heir to Faulkner, with his grotesque characters and bizarre syntax and challenging tropes (not to mention the sweaty ickiness of both writers’ prose). Ray also hearkens back to Henry Miller’s rants, although I’d suggest a larger, or at least more loving spirit in Hannah. There are even tinges of Bukoswki here. Ray also recalls Renata Adler’s strange novel Speedboat, another discursive, vaulting piece from the late ’70s. But comparing Ray to other works risks belying its radical originality, which is surely one of its great pleasures. Ray is not a novel for everyone, and those interested in Hannah might do better to begin with his equally strange compilation Airships, but those seeking a challenging, funny novel will appreciate Ray, a novel that explodes literary convention even as it reaffirms the affective power of literature. Highly recommended.