Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1454
The law could not touch him because his bordello was spread in myriad chambers throughout the suburbs and even underpasses in giant, newish sport utility vehicles with flattened rear seats, good mattresses, sunroof s tinted by creamy smoke and fine stereo systems, the aphrodisiacs of new-car smell and White Diamond mist working side by side.
It is only the realization that he is sharing with another man the affections of his woman, Dee Allison, that sends Mortimer spinning off his Mississippi axis and out of control. When Mortimer finds out about Frank Booth, Dee Allison’s other lover, he takes a stiletto knife and he rams it into Booth’s left side. “This was the side of the liver . . . . The liver brought quick death. He did not expect it to go in so smoothly. Booth, he thought, was suddenly a cadaver.” But here, Mortimer is dead wrong. Booth “withdrew the knife from his side and rammed it back to its owner, . . . straight through his root and went then into one testicle.” Not since Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises (1926) has a wound of this sort taken on such symbolic weight. Now Man Mortimer is put in a position where he, too, is forced to face down his own essential self. Instead, Mortimer turns away from this mirror and turns his attentions, his bloodlust for vengeance, on the citizens who call Eagle Lake, Mississippi, their home. Now a man newly maimed, Mortimer’s mission “to get people to face the music of their essential selves” begins to take shape.
The characters in Yonder Stands Your Orphan are on a “common run back and forth from ruin.” Hannah places Mortimer at the center of this universe, the sun of this crooked cosmos, yet it is the planets that spin around Mortimer—that is, the other principal players (and there are plenty to keep track of)—that make this novel more than just the story about the disintegration of one man’s kingdom. Hannah is a master at offering readers a vivid sense of each character’s personal life history, as if they are secretly looking through someone’s photo album, or better yet a video documentary that the characters themselves never even knew was being filmed. Listen, for instance, to what Hannah says about Ulrich, a peripheral character at best,
A bombardier out of England and over Germany for the Eighth Air Force, and a puttering aeronaut ever since, a tinkering veteran (though his only personal flight had been without an engine, some fifty yards during Hurricane Camille in 1969), he had thought science his whole life. But recently he had erupted in mourning over man’s treatment of animals. And without gratitude to them either, a holocaust without a ceremony!
The local sheriff is summed up: “Besides acting in local theater, the sheriff rode a Norton motorcycle. The people of the county were not clear on what man they had. He was handsome and very verbal. These things were measured against him.”
To Hannah’s way of thinking, no bit of information is too minor or even too trivial to pass along to the reader, and the technique works. The characters rise up off the page as creatures fully realized. However, in a review published in The New York Times Book Review, Hannah’s methods were criticized, claiming that “you never get the feeling that these people exist in relation to one another. Nothing feels integrated. A character arrives, stays for a few pages, then exits, and you forget about him until his next appearance.” It is true that characters almost haphazardly appear and then disappear, with sometimes chapter-long stretches passing before they are brought back to figure in to the novel’s dramatic action. The claim that basic relationships fail to exist between these characters is a short-sighted failure on the part of the reviewer to examine exactly what is the common link between the people who bring Hannah’s Mississippi so richly to life.
Hannah’s shipwrecked Mississippi is more of an emotional landscape than it is a physical one divided into counties. The state of Mississippi itself—that geographical place that exists also on a map—is not common ground enough to serve as this bridge. What connects the characters to and with each other is Man Mortimer himself, a man who, even though he is wounded (both physically and emotionally) and even though he is not a native son to Eagle Lake, does move (and dangerously so) through this landscape and through the lives and minds of Eagle Lake and its inhabitants, men and women who like to gather at the end of the Eagle Lake pier to share snippets of small-town gossip and to pass judgment on those who pass by the viewfinder that is the pier itself.
Like all eleven of Barry Hannah’s previous books, the main character always is language itself. The way that a story is told, the acoustics of the sentence, the voice—these are the elements that make Hannah’s fiction uniquely his own. Hannah allows the words themselves to preside over the composition of his books: not plot, not even the narrative action (of which there is always an abundance in his work). What is quintessential to understanding and appreciating the work of Barry Hannah is knowing that one is reading a writer who subverts narrative and the “what” in a novel in favor of voice and the “how” that is always lurking behind a novel’s narrative situation.
Hannah says of his methods of narratology: “I approach my work with humility and supplication, begging for that without which nothing budges, nothing moves: voice. You might have a swell tale that might bring in and hold folks of some intelligence around a campfire for thirty minutes or upwards to two hours, but you will have only junk if you don’t find the voice—inevitable, urgent, necessary. . . .” Hannah later confesses: “I have never had any interest in form, structure, or technique.” What makes Hannah even more of a force is that not only does he find the voice—which is always lingually juiced—he also spins a wild and swell tale that is structured much like a piece of freeform jazz, with its wild riffs and off-the-beaten-path solos that at times make the listener wonder, where is this man going? How is he ever going to make it back to where it all started? These are questions that the reader will likely and understandably ask during the experience of reading Yonder Stands Your Orphan. Hannah’s narrative arc is more vertical than it is horizontal, the pace of the action siding on the slow side, with the cadences of his sentences—rhythms that are both baroque and biblical—serving as the engine torque that moves the narrative into forward drive. Some words of advice to the reader who is coming brand new to the world of Barry Hannah: Drive with both hands on the wheel, and with both eyes fixed straight ahead, and be on the lookout for the unexpected to dart out of the dark road that Hannah likes to travel, a world that is itself an orphan from middle America, a world that is defined by the never-before.
Barry Hannah is, like fellow Mississippian William Faulkner, a difficult writer, a writer whose books cannot be reduced down to a one-sentence synopsis, a writer of books whose plot is oftentimes hard to pin down or even follow during an initial reading. It is during a follow-up reading that the events in Yonder Stands Your Orphan begin to make sense and relationships between characters coalesce and fall into place. As the novel works toward its violent end, as heads literally begin to roll and bodies are hanged and crucified, the reader is left alone to fend for themselves, and all that can be said here at the end is what one of the peripheral characters says when asked, “What were you doing while all this was going on?” His response mirrors the role of the reader: “All I can brag to is I was around, in a corner or under a stage or in the projector room or the broom closet, and sometimes I held the scareder little ones on my lap.” When Mortimer’s own mother is murdered near the novel’s end, Mortimer’s transformation into a state of orphanage is complete. Here at this end, there is a feeling of newfound relief on Mortimer’s part, a sense that he is ready, at long last, to be left alone with himself.
Sources for Further Study
Booklist 97 (June 1, 2001): 1841.
Library Journal 126 (June 1, 2001): 216.
Publishers Weekly 248 (June 25, 2001): 51.
The Washington Post Book World, August 19, 2001, p. 6.