Yonder Stands Your Orphan (Atlantic Monthly Press, $24, 320 pp.)
In the South, memory can be a presence stronger than fact. Some Southerners claim to live differently from the rest of America and even work studiously to hang onto traits and eccentricities which bolster their sense of regional identity.
But are we really that different? For all the talk about biscuits, barbecue, and grits, in Nashville you’re just as likely to hear a voice inflected by Ohio as you are to hear one from Donelson. The varying degrees of drawl that once marked local dialects from Music City to Mississippi may now simply be marketing devices adapted by BMI and Hollywood to play into what the rest of America feels is “authentically” Southern. If so, our remaining notions of Southern Identity may just be memory having its way with reality in a time when the last thing anyone wants to do is acknowledge that homogeneity has stomped its big fat foot right down upon our “sacred” past.
For those searching for authenticity and originality in a mass-market world whose most striking local achievement remains the CoolSprings Galleria sprawl, there is hopeand it comes in the example of Barry Hannah. He is a writer who does not play it safe. Granted, his novels have been called everything from “gritty” to “gothic,” and critics can’t help but compare him to the likes of Flannery O’Connor and Cormac McCarthy, but Hannah remains an original through and through. His new book, Yonder Stands Your Orphan (published by Atlantic Monthly Press, the press of Nashville’s own Morgan Entrekin) is a novel full of Hannah’s signature style and exceptional sentence making. There are readers who find it hard to trust Hannah; and sure, sometimes it’s hard to know where he’s taking you. Many critics have complained about his plots or lack thereof, especially in regard to his novels. But as Hannah once said, “Finding your voice is falling back and resting assured of your own voice.” It’s hard to write great literature, which by definition depends on originality, and at the same time appease your detractors; perhaps it’s by Hannah’s refusal to do so that many of his quondam naysayers have eventually forgiven him for the simple reason that if you stick with this author, follow him through those wanderings and implausibilities, you will be rewarded in the end with a pay-off bigger than any Vicksburg slot machine can dispense.
Most writers are lucky if a reader remembers even a few lines or images from his or her work; Hannah finds luck on every page. A group of women is described as “haggard from hanging onto beauty” while another character is said to suffer inside from “high winds, terrible lightning and hail.”
Hannah says that he considers Yonder Stands Your Orphan to be his best book yet. It is a novel with high ambitions. In fictional Eagle Lake, Miss., (a place said to be just outside Vicksburg) evil has been unleashed on the community and it comes in the form of Man Mortimera pimp, gambler, and Conway Twitty look-alike. He is that single individual who, through his actions and his violence, holds the power to infect a multitude. How each character reacts to Mortimer and his knife-wielding ways is what creates the conflict of the novel. Love, death, sin, and resurrection all have it out within the pages of this book.
The novel is not perfect. Every character seems to be an eccentric and there is a superfluity of characterswhat feels like a cast of thousands. There is also the issue of violence. The people of Eagle Lake are more than the walking wounded; they are the maimed, the disfigured, and the brutally damaged both emotionally and physically. Needless to say, the fictional world of Barry Hannah can be strange and disturbing. This violence of character and action, though, does not act alone. It cohabitates and lives right beside love while spiritual depravity mixes and mingles with utter joy. In the words of one character, “Goodness would wear you down, too, God knows. You needed to see a bit of hell now and then. That and great joy.” Hannah’s novel suffers from extremes, but these extremes somehow ring true. Each individual in Yonder Stands Your Orphan is “touched by a small madness” so that in turn, the reader is also touched by this madness. We are given a glimpse of what it is to care as much about life as the animal-loving Ulrich while at the same time walk in the shoes of a creature like Man Mortimer.
Barry Hannah once said, “Every good story has a ghost in it that we are trying to find. [It’s] what makes us turn the page.” The ghosts in Yonder Stands Your Orphan are ghosts of the best design. They haunt not only the characters but the reader as well. These people live life close to the bone; they understand what it is to suffer but they also understand what it is to survive. They are surrounded by evils they can’t bear to face and confronted with truths they don’t want to acknowledge, yet somehow they find the strength to love through it all. This is what Hannah meant when he agreed in recent interviews that there’s violence in his novel but rightly insisted that there is also “a lot of exuberance.” A hell of a lot, and maybe a little bit more.
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