Sunday, August 8, 2010

Barry Hannah's Ray: A country doctor's self-examination slides into chaos and reverie

Does anybody here remember Barry Hannah? I’m sad to say I was not even aware of this celebrated Mississippi author until I’d heard of his death at age 67 this past March. They ran an archival interview with him on
Fresh Air, and I was enchanted by Hannah’s voice, his vaguely ornery pauses, and his conversation with Terry Gross about guns and religion and the habits of bad men. Wikipedia offers this quote from the author, which seems to tell us a lot about Barry Hannah: “Sometimes you don’t want to arrange your memory. I love the pure chaos of it and just the reverie of it for its own sake.” I’ve just read Hannah’s slim but utterly arresting and often appalling 1980 novel Ray (Grove, $15.50). The chaos and reverie breathes on the page.

As with Daniel Clowes' Wilson (see the preceding post), Ray’s eponymous protagonist slides back and forth between ecstasy and despair and seems to have trouble adapting to the modern world, to avoid becoming another “casualty of the American confusion.” He sees his country as fundamentally ambivalent, representing “rage and gentleness together.” Perhaps this is part of the reason why Ray sometimes fantasizes that he’s a veteran of the windswept battlefields of the Civil War, where he delivered many men unto death, as well as of Vietnam, where he, for real it seems, flew a Phantom. Ray is a resident of Tuscaloosa. Ray is both a doctor and a sick man, conducting on these pages a precarious and wildly deluded self-assessment that bleeds into self-re-invention via Hannah’s eloquent and rigorously subjective first-person prose. Ray’s a drunk and foot-fetishizing womanizer of insatiable lust. Hannah tracks Ray’s most recent stab at marriage to a blue-eyed woman with a “small friendly vagina,” and his observances of his similarly unhinged and even murderous friends’ misadventures. Ray is a frequently disgusting man and just as frequently charming and hysterically funny and audacious—at least within the confines of his fragmentary self-portrait.

Hannah endows Ray with a poet’s linguistic facilities: “I have seen the moon make an opaque ghost of the backyard, and I have seen the Hooch animals roam out into it, smelling the life of themselves. They enter the border of visibility and pass through it into the uncanny.” Hannah takes equal care to render Ray a probably hopeless misanthrope-asshole on the verge of total mental collapse: “I don’t feel that good about women anyway, nor gooks, nor sand-niggers, nor doctors, nor anything human that moves, with its zealous raving habits.” Already a published author of scholarly medical studies, Ray has threatened to write a paper on women, who, he muses, “enjoy revenge more than the worst Apache.” Yet Ray has his moments of surrender to all those less offensive things he most deeply cherishes: “To live in delight of healing, flying, fucking.”
Ray is the music of a terrifying id, and Hannah neither glorifies nor condemns his subject. Rather, he recognizes something ugly and fascinating in Ray’s DNA that is common to more of us than we might care to admit, and not just racist sexist sociopaths from below the Mason-Dixon line.


Scott said...

Thanks for writing this. Barry lives on in the people he touched, however briefly.

JB said...

Thanks for reading, Scott. I only wish I'd discovered Hannah's work sooner...