Barry Hannah/Stanley Elkin (Books Acquired, 5.29.2013)

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I was thrilled to find a somewhat tattered copy of Barry Hannah’s Geronimo Rex, after trolling the [huge, unorganized] “HA” section of my favorite used bookstore. Years ago, I found like seven of Hannah’s books used there and picked up only one. I devoured it, returned, the rest were gone. Regrets, regrets. I will review this maybe at the end of the summer (?) — until then:  reviews of Hannah’s AirshpsHey Jack!, and Ray.

I’ve never read Stanley Elkin, but sort of feel like I should. Mr. BLCKDGRD (-a, -o, -e) suggested The Franchiser as a good starting point (although he said that The Magic Kingdom is his pers. fav. {disney fan?}). Some dude named Billy Gass wrote the forward. 

Also pictured: Two weird black gourds that grew in my garden, right in the midst of my cucumber patch. Also: Kodiak Ridge Lager, a weak lager with a beautiful blue an’ gold can.

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Barry Hannah’s Novella Hey Jack! Is a Loose, Hilarious Tragedy

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The loose, brief breeziness of Barry Hannah’s 1987 novella Hey Jack! belies the terror and rage at the heart of this hilarious tragedy. It’s a slim volume—133 pages in my hardback copy—with the same rambling flightiness that characterizes Hannah’s better known 1980 novel-in-vignettes, Ray.

Hey Jack! bears many comparisons with Ray: Like Ray, this novel is told from the perspective of a war vet (Korea this time, not ‘Nam); like the eponymous speaker of Ray, the narrator of Hey Jack!, Homer, finds himself frequently besotted, binged out, or horny; like Ray, Homer tries to make a marriage work; like Ray, Homer comes into conflict with a poor white trash family.

And like Ray, Hey Jack! tests the boundaries of what is and is not a “novel.” Hey Jack! is discontinuous and meandering; there’s a plot, sure, but Hannah’s apt to jump over place and time freely, tripping over months at a time, sparing not even a sentence to cue his readers in the right direction. No exposition here, folks. I suppose I should summarize the plot though: Homer, passing middle age, takes up a friendship with Jack, an older man, a former sheriff and fellow Korean War vet who runs a coffee shop popular with the college kids. Together, the pair (sort of) face off against Ronnie Foot, a local boy turned rock star who has the gall to begin an affair with Jack’s forty-year old daughter:

Ronnie Foot, the rock star had her. Or Jack thought he had her, he was sure he had her. Jack was mumbling. Jack was talking about ingratitude and pride and scum hanging on meat, things of that nature. It was astonishing to see him creep and rise suddenly, like a crazy old man. . . . “Nobody ever had a daughter like me. You want me to just her go, like a fart?” He was fingering the gun again.

Jack, once the lone bastion of sanity and order in Homer’s small, chaotic Mississippi town, begins to slide into the insanity and violence that marks the rest of the populace. Jack’s stability is the closest thing Hey Jack! offers as a slice of normalcy (to be clear though, Hannah’s characters skew grotesque, not quirky).

What unites the volume isn’t Jack’s slow slide to the dark side, but rather the narrative’s distinctive, ornery voice. It’s worth quoting Homer at length; here he condenses several of the novel’s themes in the sort of crazy-or-wise? rant indicative of the novella’s tone and rhythm:

In love, in love, in love. A mule can climb a tree if it’s in love. A man like me can look himself in the mirror and say, I’m all right, everything is beloved, I’m no stranger to anywhere any more. I’m a man full of life and a lot of time to kill, shoot every minute down with a straight blast of his eye across the bountiful landscape, from the minnow to the Alps. Something looks back at you with an eye of insane approval. Something looks back at you; out of belligerent ignorance of you it has come to a delighted focus on you and your love, together, sending up gasses of collision that make a rainbow over the poor masses who are changing a tire on the side of the road on a hot Saturday afternoon, felling like niggers. There is a law that every nigger spends a quarter of every weekend changing tires, my friend George, the biochemist, says. What do we know? What do we mere earthlings, unpublished and heaving out farts like puzzled sighs, know, but what is in our blood? I had broken up once with a woman who was in Europe, and coming out of the mall movie (I don’t even remember the movie) I gave out this private marvelous fart that was equal to a paragraph of Henry James, so churned were my guts and so lingering. And I was free. Free to discuss it. Delighted in the boundless ignorance and destruction that lay out there under the dumb lit cold moon. Enough about me and my poetry.

There’s so many shifts here. Hannah’s Homer comes off like a besotted barstool philosopher, gazing at his navel through an empty tumbler and finding both gut and abyss. We see the casual racism that so many of Hannah’s characters dip into; we see the conflation of art, spirit, and expulsion. Need I comment on the fart joke? It’s worth just repeating: “I gave out this private marvelous fart that was equal to a paragraph of Henry James” — if you don’t like that you’re not going to like Hey Jack!

Beyond that voice, there’s little to organize Hey Jack!—it’s a riff, sometimes a howl, often a jape, a joke, sometimes a verbal slap. This isn’t to say there isn’t a trajectory to the novella or a payoff at the end. Hannah seems unable to resist a tragic arc, the same one he pulls through the whiskey haze of  Ray. Perhaps he takes his cues from Edgar Allan Poe’s essay “The Philosophy of Composition“: ” . . . the death, then, of a beautiful woman is, unquestionably, the most poetical topic in the world.” (To be fair Poe is hardly the first fella to find a dead beauty such a worthy topic; also, I’ve never really been sure how to measure the tone of his essay—I can’t help but think he’s being somehow simultaneously tongue-in-cheek and deadly earnest. But enough about Poe).

But arcs be damned. The best bits of Hey Jack! are the stray little paragraphs that erupt from nowhere either to fizzle out or burn up in a bang. At its best, the novella offers bizarre little stories piecemeal that read equally absurd and true. To wit:

I began hollering at my wife for her shortcomings. She left the house, 11 P.M. I’d quit drinking and smoking. She brought me back a bottle of rye and a pack of Luckies, too. I hadn’t smoked for two weeks. I must have been a horrible nuisance.

I took a drink and a smoke.

Then I was normal. My lungs and my liver cried out: At last, again! The old abuse! I am a confessed major organ beater. I should turn myself in on the hotline to normalcy.

I hope by now that you have a sense of whether or not Hey Jack! is for you. It’s probably not going to gel with most readers: Too ugly, too loose, too nihilistic, perhaps; at heart a sloppy affair . . . but I loved it—it was the perfect book to riffle through over a few Saturday or Sunday afternoons on my back porch, its pages blotting up the condensation from a glass of sangria or can of beer, Homer’s consciousness as loose and discontinuous as my own. Not the best starting place for those interested in Hannah—that might be Airships—but great stuff.

Ray — Barry Hannah

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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.

 

Books Acquired, 10.11.2011

20111011-180342.jpgA nice little gang today: First up is Barry Hannah’s short novel Ray, which I ordered from my favorite local bookstore last week. (On a side note, said bookstore was robbed this week for cash—no books were stolen).20111011-180425.jpg

I found Jean Cocteau’s Les Enfants Terribles somewhat randomly, hunting through the “Co”s for something by Dennis Cooper. Sample illustration—

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Roberta Allen’s The Dreaming Girl  is forthcoming from Ellipsis Press; the book looks pretty cool and I’ll dip into it tonight. It actually was sent to my old abode, but the folks who live there now are kind people and alerted me. Some serendipity perhaps. Here’s Ken Foster (Village Voice) on The Dreaming Girl:

Told in a series of elliptical tableaux and bound by stream of consciousness, Roberta Allen’s The Dreaming Girl is an example of everything that shouldn’t work, and yet it does. Like a literary descendant of Duras, Allen places her unnamed narrator in an exotic Central American limbo that propels her mind into a mesmerizing state somewhere between memory and fantasy.

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