Barry Hannah’s seventh book Hey Jack! is something more and something less than a novel. It is an extended meditation on American culture as seen through the eyes of a survivor of the Korean War. The extremely self-conscious narrator is named Homer. During the course of the book, Homer travels, and he is guilty of infidelity to the woman he loves, but neither the content nor the manner of Hey Jack! invites comparison with the Odyssey.
The book opens with Homer’s statement “I go back to Korea.” His sensibility has been permanently marked by his wartime experiences at Chosun Reservoir, and allusions to those experiences, sometimes in quotation of printed sources, recur regularly. Homer’s involvement with the life stories of people in his Mississippi university community comes across as compulsive but oddly detached. The book lacks both the epic and the novelistic quality because the narrator is more interested in expressing his views of culture and of assorted misfits than in showing people living their lives.
Hey Jack! is essentially lyrical, regularly undercut by comedic and satiric passages. The book is ordered as a poem might be, with the phrase “hey Jack” serving as a refrain. Other elements also recur. The book is a lamentation of sorts—a grieving condemnation of what the American South has become, though Hannah, like many Southern writers, is hopelessly ambivalent about his region.
One should not identify Homer with the author, or the unnamed Mississippi town with Oxford, where Hannah lives and teaches. Perhaps Hannah chose to focus on the Korean War precisely because he could know it only at second hand. Born in 1943, Hannah came of age in a culture deeply affected by that war and its veterans. Hey Jack! brings together remnants of a better time without glorifying The Old South, and it shows the merciless incursions of the cheap and tawdry which belie the pretensions of the increasingly commercialized Sun Belt.
Homer’s comments about an incidental character named Harmon reveal his, and his community’s, attitudes. No one, Homer says, enables him to gather his hatred into one space as Harmon does. Harm, as he wants to be called, thinks that he is a dude but is nothing; he is “Southern trash and would be Northern trash if he was up there.” Harmon likes to beat women and he “likes to wallow around in mud in a pick-up truck.” Harmon “doesn’t have the guts to enlist in the service.” Homer and his cronies agree that “people like young Harmon would better serve each other by going back up in the hills and committing incest man on man. Or having saw fights.” Their judgment is that “the riffraff is on the increase.”
The natty, aristocratic Jack Lipsey is the antithesis of Harmon—and of Ronnie Foote, the rock star who is equally trashy, but rich. Jack has written poems, he has taught at a college in Maryland, and he has been married three times. Jack remains close to his two living wives, for, with each, he has had a daughter. Homer notes approvingly that Jack is not the kind of man to make room for the likes of Harmon.
Homer tells his readers that he has “gone home, over and over, and written this down, so as to distinguish my life.” He tells something also of his narrative method: “You will find me changing voices as I slip into the—let us say—mode of the closer participant.” Almost instantly, he shifts to the young Ronnie Foote’s voice questioning his Pa, then his Gramps, and finally his Double Gramps (a man...
(The entire section is 1466 words.)