Yonder Stands Your Orphan
By Barry Hannah
Atlantic Monthly Press; 336 pp.; $24
There's a rumor about Barry Hannah bringing a gun to a class he was teaching at Ole Miss and firing it in front of his students. There's another about him sharpening a knife during a reading at a bookstore, only to thrust it into the podium midsentence. There's also one about him arriving drunk to a booksigning and attempting to scandalize every woman there. And there's a particularly nice story about him playing trumpet with Mississippi roots-rock band Blue Mountain.
Legends like these abound about Hannah. Probably most of these stories -- and the multitude of others that float around -- aren't true, and probably a few of them are. That's not really the issue, though; what's more important than the veracity of such gossip is the simple fact that such legends are being told. What other living Southern author has such a widespread and mythic legend surrounding him?
As famous as he is for his intimidation, drunkenness, and unpredictable behavior, Hannah is also renowned for his talent -- his sentences sear the reader -- and for his maddening inconsistency. A common perception of his work is that he is a far better short story writer than novelist. He excels in creating highly focused stories that seem to explode with action and meaning, while his longer pieces can often prove looser and more digressive.
Perhaps his latest book, Yonder Stands Your Orphan, will change this perception: It is an aggressively strange novel of stories and ideas sewn together like a Frankenstein's monster and told by a writer whose own legends suggest he knows of which he speaks. Episodic and often elegant, it is composed of stories "of men gone mad with religion and vicious with regret, mass conflagrations, graves."
Hannah focuses on a large group of crazies and eccentrics who live and work around Eagle Lake near Vicksburg, Mississippi, a remote locale frequented by hardcore fishermen and lunatics alike. His characters are creatures of the casinos and the backwoods, old men lamenting a South that never existed, unladylike ladies both very young and very old. They are the same kinds of people who populate Hannah's previous fictions, hardscrabble hoodlums and middle-age losers this close to snapping; he has even revived one of them name and all -- Sidney Farte, the entertainingly sinister old coot who first appeared in "Water Liars," from his classic first story collection, Airships.
At the center of all the commotion are a few who might be considered main characters: Melanie Wooten, a 73-year-old widow who has "an elegance on loan from the cinema" and who is sleeping with a sheriff half her age; Max Raymond, a brooding saxophone player married to and jealous of a salsa-singing Cuban nicknamed the Coyote; and Man Mortimer, a small-time criminal who dabbles in teen pornography and prostitution, not to mention murder and mutilation, and who seems to embody evil in its purest form.
Mortimer is the most interesting in the community, if only because he's the most unpredictable and the most ambiguous. At a drive-in restaurant, still nursing a humiliating wound to his testicles from the previous night, he slices the waiter's arm with a concealed knife, then speeds away. In general, evil is more interesting than good, and Mortimer's evil is so intense and shadowy that he lends the novel a perverse energy. Hannah infuses him with a great deal of symbolism and meaning: Mortimer acts as the culmination of more than a century of deconstruction rather than Reconstruction, and he is a creation more than strong enough to carry such monumental literary weight.
As Mortimer terrorizes the residents of Lake Eagle, the characters' various interactions -- romantic and adversarial, violent and lustful -- create a labyrinthine story with a gloriously tossed-off feel to it, a ratty improvisation that perfectly captures the dying South that serves as both setting and theme. For Hannah, the South has become a cheap tourist wasteland, shackling its past and parading its dubious culture about for a quick buck.
Throughout a dozen books in nearly 30 years, Hannah's prose has been legendarily graceful, inventive, voracious, and startlingly direct. In Yonder Stands Your Orphan, the sentences still retain their almost supernatural ability to bend, warp, and angle, while his characterization -- running the gamut from young boys to aging beauties to old farts fishing from the docks -- is sly yet sharp. The plot takes its own sweet time, meandering occasionally but always into intriguing territory. Hannah remains in constant control of the seemingly haphazard events, developing his ideas thoughtfully and infusing the novel with a sad-eyed melancholy. Yonder Stands Your Orphan erupts in a sharp finale of blood and fire and death, the account of which the author delivers secondhand so as not to reveal too much. The effect is creepy and concussive, if only because so much is left to the imagination.
Known to brandish a knife or gun as much as he is to wield a pen, Hannah has written an intricate novel that should completely overshadow his own extraliterary legend. Ultimately, Yonder Stands Your Orphan proves so original and so amazingly well wrought as to be absolutely unforgettable. -- Stephen Deusner
By Richard Russo
Knopf; 483 pp.; $25.95
If the title of Richard Russo's latest novel, Empire Falls, strikes you as a possible allusion to Gibbon's treatise on the fall of the Roman empire, you've got the right idea. The notions conjured up by the title -- fallen empires, the inevitability of any human glory, no matter how magnificent and ostensibly controlled, succumbing at last to entropy -- are within the first 20 pages revealed to be accurate implications of what the reader might expect from this hulking novel.
The fictional town of Empire Falls, Maine, is home to the skeletal remnant of the once-mighty Whiting clan's textile empire and those left behind, willingly or not, after the unemployment-fueled diaspora that took place when that empire collapsed. Central to this imbroglio is Miles Roby, our crestfallen protagonist and manager of the Empire Grill, who seems to be losing a slow war of attrition. But in this war, the metaphorical shrapnel embedded in Miles' body are shards of his own shattered dreams. Dreams of academia.
Miles' place at the grill was both portended and pursued. While he was in high school, the girl of his dreams worked there (as she still does), so it was only natural that he be inexorably drawn to this unattainable beauty's lair. Yet when he finally escaped high school (and the vortex that his teenage desire made of the Empire Grill), his happy, hopeful days far away at an excellent college were cut short by the dreadful pull of his mother's cancer. Miles came home to comfort her, though all Grace Roby wanted was for her son to flee Empire Falls without looking back. During the slow months of his mother's demise, Miles worked long and hard back at the Empire Grill, covering for its terminally ill manager. The manager would never return. Miles would never leave.
So this is where we find Miles as the novel begins. His teen daughter, Tick, is his life. He's losing Janine, his wife, to the owner of her health club, Walt. An older man who fancies himself a "Silver Fox," Walt loves visiting Miles at the Empire Grill to either rub it in or make sure there aren't any hard feelings regarding Miles and Janine's impending divorce and his part in it. Miles' right-hand man at the grill is his younger brother, David, whose burden is a self-inflicted ruined hand. David's injury is the result of a spectacular drunk-driving accident and its harrowing aftermath, the description of which itself is worth the price of the novel, but he's since cleaned up, except for the occasional toke. David and Miles' father, Max Roby, is the prototypical ne'er-do-well. During their childhood, the brothers' father could be counted on to either be sitting at a nearby bar drinking on credit or sojourning the East Coast for work incompetently painting houses. Observing all this local color from across the Knox River's Empire Falls is the probably malevolent Francine Whiting, widow of C.B. Whiting, the third generation to man the helm of the Whiting textile empire.
Mrs. Whiting also happens to be the owner of the Empire Grill. It was she who fetched Miles home 20 years ago when his mother's illness took its fatal turn. Grace Roby had years before been offered a position as Mrs. Whiting's personal assistant when her job at the Whiting shirt factory was eliminated under new ownership. She accepted the position with some misgivings yet remained on until her death. It was only after the devastating blow of burying his mother that Miles buried himself in the tedium of the grill. Mrs. Whiting soon informed him that since he had kept it financially afloat for her in a tough time it would pass on to him at the time of her death.
In the years since Miles took this fateful offer his dreams have been reduced to little more than making his retirement off the sale of the Empire Grill, if and when it passes on to him, and thenceforth leading a pleasurable, blasé, blue-collar existence on some spot of land on Martha's Vineyard.
But capricious fate will have none of this and will make sure everything changes drastically. A little life-altering tragedy creeps in before Empire Falls ends. For a man who considers himself first and foremost a comic novelist -- and there's plenty of laughs in this book -- Richard Russo has ingeniously crafted a terribly real and at times macabre tale of lives tangled up and rent apart that spans nearly a century. But that's not to say it's a downer. The resolution, though dark, is strangely uplifting.
The ambition of this work is a bit boggling, and the circuitous manner in which all the narrative elements reconnect at unforeseeable junctures with startling clarity is nigh miraculous, not to mention hair-raising. And certainly beautiful is the author's unquestionable command of voice. With characters this fully realized, you never hesitate to believe. I can recall only once or twice encountering a snippet of dialogue that came across as histrionic, but these were characters on the far periphery. Highly recommended.
Make sure you also check out Russo's magnificent first novel, Mohawk, originally published in paperback by Vintage in 1986. It's now available for the first time in hardback, courtesy of Knopf. Also highly recommended. -- Jeremy Spencer
By Steve Yarbrough
Knopf; 273 pp.; $23
The dark, persistent spirits explored in Steve Yarbrough's second novel, Visible Spirits, hold the characters captive to their violent and embarrassing pasts. The period and place is the Reconstruction South. The year is 1902. And the town is Loring, Mississippi.
Similarities to Howard Bahr's The Year of Jubilo are obvious. In Bahr's novel, Civil War soldiers return from battle and confront the reality of their new loss -- the loss of almost every aspect of their previous existence. In Visible Spirits, Yarbrough's central characters, the "entitled" Payne brothers, Leighton and Tandy, bungle through their distaste for each other as their home town faces turmoil: The African-American postmistress, Loda Jackson, is threatened into resigning, and President Theodore Roosevelt personally intervenes. There will be no mail delivery to Loring until the postmistress regains her position.
Yarbrough's Payne brothers, and the unyielding memories of their deceased father, the powerful Sam Payne, are skillfully rendered. Even potentially positive characters, such as Leighton, Loring's mayor and newspaper editor, whose struggles are real and worthy, never quite rises above the moral miasma of Loring's citizenry. When Leighton recalls his participation in some of Sam Payne's horrific acts against their servants -- Sam at one time forces them into a vat of "dipping" solution to rid his plantation of ticks -- the son seems to take on the sins of his father, justly or not. Tandy Payne's return to Loring from New Orleans is anything but triumphant. Tandy is a survivor in the worst sense of the word. His gambling escapades have ruined him and almost gotten him killed. (He saves himself once by lighting a horse on fire.) Tandy's acts of violence are coupled incongruously with his cowardice and bizarre good-ole-boy mentality. And the more the Payne brothers battle each other and the town, the more they evoke the terrifying specter of their father.
In contrast to Yarbrough's confident handling of his male characters, Leighton's wife, Sarah, is awkwardly portrayed. Her cold, dismissive manner is never adequately explained beyond her dissatisfaction with Leighton and their marriage.
Yarbrough scores, however, when he employs his knowledge of the Reconstruction South. The resistance to change in Loring resonates. When President Roosevelt focuses on the citizens' misbehavior and applies his "federal" power, they once again feel conquered, but sympathetic readers will be few. Loring's old guard is hardly worthy of concern. Interaction between blacks and whites is laced with bitterness. In fact, the only power the black community seems to possess is their control of spirits. When they threaten a haunting, even Sam Payne is unnerved.
That the Reconstruction South labored under a haunted past is highlighted by Yarbrough's sometimes excessively elliptical style. Chapters flow back and forth, past to present, making Loring's disconcerting history more so. The novel's violent episodes and irredeemable characters hold little hope. Still, Visible Spirits concludes on a note of optimism. Leighton Payne visits an elderly Loda Jackson in the hospital and realizes the uncertainty of "his position and the space he'd taken up for so long." -- Lisa C. Hickman
Back When We Were Grownups
By Anne Tyler
Knopf; 274 pp.; $25
Pulitzer Prize-winner Anne Tyler, author of Breathing Lessons, The Accidental Tourist, and Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant, has created in this her 15th novel a stunning depiction of an average life -- a life so remarkably normal that when subtle changes occur it is with resonating force.
At 53, Rebecca Davitch wakes up one morning to realize what a difference one decision can make. Overnight this grandmother and widow realizes that she no longer recognizes herself and wonders what her life might have been had she chosen a different path.
In a dream Rebecca imagines that she has a teenage son, a fair-complected, light-haired boy completely unlike her daughter or step-daughters. The dream sets Rebecca to wondering what life might have been like had she married her high school sweetheart, as she had planned, and not Joe, an older, abandoned husband and father of three young daughters and the eventual father of Rebecca's daughter.
Rebecca remembers the 20-year-old college student she was before she met Joe. She has long since left this serious, solemn, intellectual girl behind. Painfully shy earlier in life, Rebecca marvels at the person she has become. She cannot reconcile the somber, idealistic girl with the dowdy, silly woman she is, and she certainly cannot see how Rebecca the wallflower became Rebecca the planner of other people's parties.
With this in mind, Rebecca retraces her life. She calls her old beau, and she picks up a research project she dropped more than 30 years earlier. She tries to reinvent the girl she was.
Beautifully written and at times quite witty, in Back When We Were Grownups Tyler has created an utterly believable woman grappling with that most problematic of notions: self-identity. The book's other female characters -- Rebecca's grown daughter and step-daughters -- are as thought-provoking as they are hilarious: By turns strong, defiant adults and bratty, little girls, Tyler's women will instantly remind every female reader of herself and every woman she knows.
Back When We Were Grownups also reminds us, whether we be women or men, that there is no skin as comfortable as our own. In the end Rebecca realizes this, but her adventure has been in discovering which skin is, in fact, hers. Therein lies the beauty of this wry, intelligent character study and lesson in personal epiphanies. -- Rebekah Gleaves
How To Be Good
By Nick Hornby
Riverhead Books; 304 pp.; $23.95
Nick Hornby has never had a problem writing realistic characters. His protagonists may be flawed, but they are honest about their flaws and their voices are self-aware enough to provide a truthful, compelling narrative. But Hornby's latest is quite a departure from his usual style and substance. In How To Be Good, the main character is a North London doctor whose sense of morality dictates her self-esteem. She wants to, and has to, be Good.
When we first meet Katie Carr she has just told her husband -- via her cell phone, no less -- that she wants a divorce. In reaction, her husband David, a newspaper columnist who dubs himself the "Angriest Man in North London," quickly does a 180: He quits his job, becomes sweet and sensitive, and takes up with a spiritual healer. All of which annoys our not-so-long-ago-saintly protagonist.
Suddenly she is not the Good partner in the marriage. While her husband is handing their lunches and computers to the poor and taking in the homeless, all Katie's doing is administering to her patients and having an affair. Unfortunately, our narrator/martyr is not so honest with the reader. Katie doesn't believe it herself, but she goes on and on about how truly Good a person she is. The paradox: She is a Good person. But this not only limits Katie's fullness as a character (she cares only about this one distinction), it is annoying. For someone as short on moral fiber as myself, it grew quite tedious reading about Katie's obsession with being Good. Chuck it, I found myself thinking. So you're annoyed at your kids or your husband and his live-in guru. That's understandable.
But while Katie could use a smack in the face, How To Be Good nevertheless shows that Hornby is becoming a more mature writer. He's still dealing with the delicate ties that bind, but this is a novel that revolves around a marriage on its last legs. The question is, Does this couple want to put this marriage out of its misery or let it limp on indefinitely?
Perhaps portrayed more honestly than any of the characters in the novel, the relationship is an evolving beast nourished on years of gradual mistrust and subliminal warfare. It is this "character," not Katie the Good, not hubby the Angriest Man in North London, that Hornby really understands and defines.
Hornby may be going deeper in this latest book, but he loses some of the humor and hipness that readers delighted in in his previous work. He still intersperses pop-culture references aplenty, but there's a more serious edge. And I suspect no one will ever see this as a glimpse into women's psyches the way High Fidelity was said by some to be a glimpse into men's. Hornby's Katie is believable as a woman but certainly not astonishing as one.
This opinion is based on the author's previous work. On its own merits, How To Be Good is enjoyable enough, engaging and all that. Even if it isn't Hornby at his realistic best. -- Mary Cashiola
Nick Hornby will be signing copies of How To Be Good at Davis-Kidd Booksellers on Sunday, July 15th, at 6 p.m.
John Henry Days
By Colson Whitehead
Doubleday; 389 pp.; $24.95
Colson Whitehead's breakthrough novel The Intuitionist garnered an impressive number of critical accolades, including words such as "brilliant," "dazzling," and "bold." Comparisons to the great (and aware of it) Thomas Pynchon arrived in noisy clusters like detoxifying winos at an all-night soup kitchen. It was, in the opinion of hack and flack alike, abundantly clear that this young African-American writer was going places.
Conceptually, Whitehead's second novel, John Henry Days, lives up to and perhaps even eclipses the potential shown in his first outing. But it is marred, almost irreparably so, by too many ornamental words, too many modifiers sans action, too many passages which dazzle only by painstaking design. It's the kind of elegant-by-the-numbers prose where trees reach to heaven like "outstretched fingers." But if you can tolerate this kind of literary mugging, Whitehead's John Henry Days is bursting with enlightened, thoroughly devastating commentary on the most semiologically urgent sound byte in the history of American folklore.
As we move beyond automation into this digital age of virtual experience and as the battle between man and machine shifts toward endgame, tales of John Henry's race against the steam drill become more and more appealing. Hope is the attraction. Whitehead, however, looks beyond the obvious and discovers in its shadows that which should have been equally obvious. He then asks the hard question: Who won the race? Who really won? According to song and story, Henry emerged victorious from his battle with automation and progress, and for the better part of two centuries his dubious victory, fictional or otherwise, has provided the children of post-industrial America with the hope that humanity has not been rendered obsolete by its own cleverness. We have somehow glossed over -- even glorified -- the fact that, in the end, the winner drops dead from exhaustion. Hooray.
The protagonist of John Henry Days, J. Sutter, is neither hero nor anti-hero. He's just another journalist in his milieu. Set squarely in the present, a time when every bum on the street has a press agent, Sutter and his fellow scribes, self-aware and generally self-loathing hacks all, have become professional freeloaders, far more concerned with the complimentary liquor and cheese that is part and parcel of the events they are dispatched to cover than they are with the events themselves.
The not-so-newsworthy activity du jour is the release of a new U.S. postage stamp honoring John Henry in the tiny West Virginia town where the steel driver supposedly met with his demise. The backward burg depends on the trickle of tourists who come to have their pictures made next to the steel driver's statue -- a statue that owes its existence to a well-known liquor company -- and to take home a souvenir or two. It is an artificial environment both on the rise and in bad decline. This diorama as literary device, pioneered and perfected by George Saunders, is no less effective in Whitehead's more overtly political hands, and the statue of John Henry quickly becomes a tragic clown. Birds abuse it. Henry's bare, bronze chest is pockmarked because drunken rednecks use him for target practice. Once, presumably for shits and giggles, someone tied a rope to the statue and drug it through the streets behind a car, then abandoned it. It's a potent and pertinent image, which, if too precious, is never heavy-handed and always rendered with a sufficiently dark but riotous humor.
Though his tone, even when describing atrocious labor conditions, is too nostalgic, Whitehead's best writing occurs when he takes on John Henry the myth and makes the folk hero all too human. As if channeling the dreaming minds of a terrified nation aghast at the destructive, all-consuming forces set in motion at their behest, Whitehead writes of John Henry, "He looked at his hands, the big dumb mules at the end of his arms. They did what they wanted. Palms like territories. It was stupid." And so it was. -- Chris Davis
By Chuck Palahniuk
Doubleday; 256 pp.; $24.95
Victor Mancini, sex addict, is the narrator of Chuck Palahniuk's Choke. Victor is obsessed with the idea of an ideal world where no one grows old or dies. But in real-world terms, Victor works a job in a historical reenactment society where all things are as they were in 1734. He also helps care for his mother, a former feminist revolutionary, who is lying in a private hospital and starving because she has forgotten how to eat. Victor is struggling to keep his mother alive so he can continue to care for her. Sounds confusing and is.
Private wards cost money, so Victor makes some extra scratch by causing himself to choke at various expensive restaurants. He knows that someone will rush to his aid and hopes that this same savior will take pity on him and send him money. Victor is only too happy to be their victim, but Victor is running out of restaurants, so he needs to think up something fast.
Enter Dr. Paige Marshall on his mother's private ward. Marshall has a solution to save Victor's mom. All Victor the sex addict has to do is impregnate the good doctor so she can abort the child and use its brain tissue to restore his mother.
It gets worse. The book begins and ends twisted, and the question remains: Does the author of Fight Club know what he's doing? In the same way that Victor cannot get past his ideal universe, Palahniuk cannot take these bizarre circumstances and create a coherent story. Victor and Choke don't make it much further than pop psychology.
At least the book reads well. Palahniuk writes in an easy-going, straight-forward manner only occasionally marred by carelessness or all-out jumble. Clarity is the book's chief strength, and the description of action -- from small to grand gestures -- can be heart-rendingly real. The first scene in which Victor "chokes," I submit, is one of the most terrifying, most graphic you'll ever read.
But there are limits. Palahniuk slaps down words that sound awfully arty and slaps down some spectacularly grotesque scenes that are awfully unnecessary. In the end, Victor Mancini is left pretty inconsequential. And as is the case for many first-person storylines, if the narrator goes, so does the narrative. -- Chris Przybyszewski
Ignatius Rising: The Life of John Kennedy Toole
By René Pol Nevils and
Deborah George Hardy
LSU Press; 234 pp.; $24.95
Eleven years after John Kennedy Toole killed himself, his novel A Confederacy of Dunces was published. The next year, 1981, the work received the Pulitzer Prize for fiction. The story of how the novel came to be published is legendary: Toole's mother, Thelma, forced the work on author Walker Percy when he was teaching at Loyola University in New Orleans. The book finally met the public, and the public has since made it something of a cult classic.
But who was Toole? What sort of mind was it that created the righteously anti-heroic Ignatius J. Reilly, unemployable and obese, a man who left chaos and a cloud of flatulence in his wake? What was it about Toole that led him to brilliantly define New Orleans through a handful of outrageous characters? And why did he commit suicide?
The biography Ignatius Rising, by René Pol Nevils and Deborah George Hardy, sets out to answer these questions. But because the principal parties in Toole's story have died, Nevils and Hardy have had to comb through old documents and track down surviving friends and acquaintances. They have pieced together a boyhood overwhelmed by a theatrical mother (she taught piano and elocution), a woman who lived through her son yet gave him little praise. They follow him through school and doctoral work at Columbia University. They follow him to the all-women colleges where he taught and into the army and his assignment in Puerto Rico, where he taught English to the native recruits and wrote the bulk of A Confederacy of Dunces. They follow him back to New Orleans, where he finished his novel. And though he worked hard to clean up the book, it was finally declared unpublishable. Toole grew paranoid, disappeared, and reappeared slumped over in his car, dead from carbon-monoxide poisoning.
That's the who and the what. Now what about the why? These answers don't come so easily to the biographers. The book is filled with "must haves" and "might haves." The letters from Toole, for example, which the biographers showed to psychologists on the possibility that Toole was gay (he didn't have a girlfriend, though he didn't have a boyfriend either), are given a lot of attention.
The focus on Toole's sexuality leads to this incredible passage: "John was obese, unkempt, and very attractive," says one source, who accompanied Toole to a cottage where he realized his host was running a rooming house for male prostitutes in exchange for sex, a rooming house that just happened to be in the backyard of Toole's uncle's house. That this was nearly 40 years ago and that the source was an admitted alcoholic and profoundly depressed at the time don't seem to concern the authors one bit. Their proof of the accusation? According to this source, someone drove him by the property after A Confederacy of Dunces was published, and he identified the rooming house as such.
The writers, who met in a journal-writing class, first pitched the idea of writing about the efforts to transfer A Confederacy of Dunces to the screen (since delayed). Their editor at LSU Press (the same press that published A Confederacy of Dunces) suggested the women do a biography instead. Nevils and Hardy prove adept at doing the legwork but less grounded in doing the mindwork. Rumors are recorded and half-formed theories are given too much credit, making Ignatius Rising shaky with speculation. -- Susan Ellis