Barry Hannah: murder and madness in Mississippi
Meet the hapless denizens of Eagle Lake, Mississippi: Byron Egan, preacher and former drug mule; Max Raymond, who gave up practicing medicine to play jazz sax for the woman he loves and who seems "to stand knee-deep in unseen wreckage"; sweet Melanie Wooten, who at 72 is having an affair with the sheriff half her age; and a gambling, whore-running Conway Twitty look-alike named Man Mortimer. Eagle Lake lies just outside Vicksburg, Mississippi, and is mapped out in full by its creator, Barry Hannah, in his novel, Yonder Stands Your Orphan.
The book's characters are "orphans from normal," writes the author, who isn't so sure normal exists, anyway. Being orphaned, being lost and disenfranchised, however, is something Hannah understands and writes about with passion. The man Truman Capote called "the maddest writer in the U.S.A." has peopled his novels and short story collections with the desperate, the driven, the victimized and the violent.
"I've been labeled a violent writer, frankly I must like it," drawls Hannah, who published his first dazzling novel Geronimo in 1970. "My wife says, 'You're a kind and gentle man, why don't you tell that kind of story?' I'm a pacifist but I'm intensely interested in people under stress and combat. I wonder at violence itself—it's so far beyond and yet it's with you every day in the newspaper and in life."
The Eagle Lake folks do things they know they shouldn't do, but are helpless to resist, succumbing to the weird impulse of being human and never learning from it. "Life itself was not much of an instructor," writes Hannah. "It would shock you with depravity and staggering kindness within the same hour. If you could get used to that you might learn, but life itself didn't especially want to follow up on anything."
Life may not have taught his characters much, but it's been a hell of an instructor for Hannah. "I was ill last year, almost died of pneumonia, I was in chemo, I had one of these experiences—a week after I was well, in my sleep, I felt the strong presence of Christ, which shocked me, and I still don't know what to do with it," says the author, speaking from his home in Oxford, Mississippi. "It's a pretty new direction for me. I have become more spiritually aware this year. I think anyone who was facing his death would be." He is now cancer-free, although the long-range effects of chemotherapy, he says, have wreaked havoc on his tennis game. Hannah, though, is made of sturdy stuff. Lymphoma and chemo couldn't break him, and neither could a longtime affair with booze. "All my idols were alcoholics—Joyce, Hemingway. I bought into the notion you had to have some drinking and a bit of pain if you had anything to say," says Hannah. "Much of it was phony." He hasn't had a drink in a decade and Yonder Stands Your Orphan is the first novel he wrote sober. Hannah misses nothing of his boozy self. It's his younger self he thinks of with a bit of nostalgia. "The young are privy to truths that become blurred for older people. I had no history when I started writing in the 1960s, when I was writing as well as I ever did. You don't need to know everything, thank God. I knew nothing of publishing, didn't know I was going to make a dime. I miss that freedom in relative poverty," he says. "When I was younger, tales came to me so quickly and automatically, it was hard to keep up with my pencil. Now they're more thoughtful and come over a slower and longer time." But he is quick to add that he hasn't mellowed. "Don't get me wrong—I have a big motorcycle."
Now, though, he's wrestling with bigger issues. More than he has in any of his previous works, Hannah explores the struggle between good and evil in Orphan, not just in the community around Eagle Lake, but within each of his characters, particularly Max Raymond. "He's not a bad man, he's very gentle with his wife, but this man needs to visit evil, needs to be close to it," says Hannah. "He thrives on the myths of evil and chaos. He wants to be a kind of Christian but he doesn't have the faith yet, so he wants to act against evil. Maybe he thinks too much."
Hannah admits there's more than a little of himself in Raymond. "I grew up in a family of doctors. I was in pre-med once—gave it up for literature, much to my family's bereavement," he says and laughs.
"Literature was the first time I was happy to know things I was supposed to know, the first time my spirit caught up with something. You could be as wild as you want and say what you want and have respect and honor for it, which I thought was a pretty good deal. But I always wondered what kind of doctor I would make. Max Raymond is a projection of a parallel life."
Some of the book's other characters first appeared in the short story "High-Water Railers" in Hannah's 1993 collection Bats Out of Hell. When he wrote it nine years ago, he had no idea the characters were destined to come back for an entire novel; he knew only that the story "seemed to draw my best work."
Writing about the South and living in Oxford, home of William Faulkner, Hannah has been called that dirty name, a Southern writer. "I don't like it used in the connotations of local color—I despise that—or somebody making hay out of weird relatives or funny names," he says. "No really good writer could be merely Southern. A fiction writer isn't provincial, ever. He should be sending back news from the front, news somebody else might not know about and it should be interesting and entertaining."
After 35 years of writing and 12 books to his credit, the author still brings that sense of urgency to his writing. "I believe in the power of words," says Hannah, who teaches creative writing at the University of Mississippi.
In a world of orphans, Hannah believes words and stories can still unite us. That's what keeps him going. "Every new book is scary and I know less and less about how to write a book. It's just tough, but I like to be a happy amateur," he says. "I'm just older and have more words." Ellen Kanner is a writer in Miami.