Yonder Stands Your Orphan by Barry Hannah

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Yonder Stands Your Orphan Summary

(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)


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...

(The entire section is 1,454 words.)