Ray is a superbly written, compelling little book which must be ranked among the finest recent works of fiction and which—along with two earlier novels and a collection of short stories—merits Barry Hannah a place in the highest rank of young American writers. At the risk of unfairly and improperly consigning Hannah to the status of “regional writer,” it is nevertheless true that many of the themes and attitudes in his work have a distinctly Southern flavor. Like the work of any good writer, however, Hannah’s work transcends geographic labels and speaks to matters of common concern. From beginning to end, Ray contains a consistently high level of writing—not simply a journalistic narration of facts in the manner of most best-sellers, but rather a masterful manipulation of the language which results in a truly artistic treatment of materials which, in less sure hands, could become vulgar and commonplace.
An image which appears more than once in the work of Barry Hannah and which contains much of what is unique about Southern literature is “the end of the pier where the old liars are still snapping and wheezing at one another.” Other similar images come to mind: wizened old-timers squatting and spitting on the porch of a country store; weather-worn dirt farmers with leathery skin and squinting eyes sitting around a warm wood stove while the chilly winds of winter blow outside. These are people who have known or heard or read or imagined the fall of the homeland to the enemy, people who have tried to wrest crops from unyielding soil, people to whom death and loss and violence and cruel caprices of nature are daily affairs. Yet, they are also people who have taken from their suffering and defeat a certain black and laconic humor which allows them to grin wryly about the monstrous jokes of which they are the victims and to emerge with a stubborn and implacable optimism which demonstrates that, as William Faulkner said, man will not merely endure, he will prevail.
If it is true that the poor, rural, war-torn Old South of Faulkner has now become the New South of shopping centers, cloverleaf highways, and modern industry, then it is also true that something still remains of the attitudes engendered by the Old South. In Ray, Hannah deftly presents a contemporary man through lenses which have been indelibly colored by hues from the Old South. Or, more accurately stated, Hannah allows his hero to present his own story; and from the words Hannah puts in Ray’s mouth it is clear that—contemporary though he is in many ways—Ray also shares much with the old liars at the end of the pier.
The biographical facts about Ray are rather mundane. He is a thirty-three-year-old doctor who practices medicine in Tuscaloosa. He is a former jet pilot who saw death and inflicted death in Vietnam. He is working on his second marriage, this one to a somewhat older woman named Westy. In his medical practice, he attends mostly to common folks, and he has seen his share of shot, cut, and beaten victims. He is an alcoholic capable of debilitating binges and thoughts of suicide. Yet, he is a respected author of medical papers as well as a popular lecturer on American civilization at the local university.
Ray, however, has little to do with biographical facts. Indeed, they are but a skeleton to support a complex, intriguing, enigmatic man who has the sensitivity, imagination, and voice of a poet. Perhaps “voice” is the word which most nearly summarizes Hannah’s achievement. For Ray is a talker, an inveterate lover of words, whether his own or Shakespeare’s or those of his friend Mr. Hooch. So convincing is Hannah’s performance that after a few pages one forgets that Ray is a fictional character being presented through the intermediary of an author, and one hears only the voice of Ray, a voice that by turns is buoyant, profane, angry, bitter, frustrated, gay—but a voice that is always honest. Ray is aware of the paradoxical yearnings and feelings which war within him, of the lust, love, gentleness, and violence which compete for his soul. His voice gives eloquent expression to every warring impulse as he...
(The entire section is 1708 words.)