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Barry Hannah: Yonder Stands Your Orphan

There is a sort of plot in this novel but, as is usual with Hannah, the frenetic pace of the story and the characters, who are not like us, are what drives this story. Behind them all, is Man Mortimer, pimp, brothel owner, thug, lover, man about town, Conway Twitty look-alike. The town in question is in fact, around Eagle Lake, Mississippi. Much of the property around the lake is owned by the wittily named Ten Hoors – Gene and Penny. They have three things in common, beside their marriage – they both like fishing, they both like and have been very successful in real estate and both are in grief because of the death of their son in a school bus accident. The tranquilisers have an effect on them and they behave strangely, leaving rotting fish around the house, nailing things to the wall and she cuts his penis and then stabs him, nearly severing his testicles. They patch it up and open an orphanage by the lake.

The other key event concerns Man Mortimer. He had left his wife and young son. She turns up at lake with the boy and kills herself and the boy. Man has the car with their bodies dumped in the swamp (by a man who will later become the minister in the community). However, some years later the car re-emerges from the swamp and is found by a couple of boys, who uses the skeletons as toys and to frighten others. Indeed, the bones travel around the area and the story. Man is in love with Dee Allison, who has four children and is loved by others, including Harold Laird and a much older man, Frank Booth. Man manages to stab Frank but Frank pulls out the knife and stabs Man back, damaging his testicles. Man will later cut up Frank’s face.

Other characters include the also wittily named Pepper Farté, who owns the fishing supply shack and who is beheaded by Man, who puts a football on the corpse where the head was, and his nephew Sidney; Melanie Wooten who learns after a long and happy marriage that her husband is gay and so she is now having an affair with Faccetto, the local police officer, from the North, who is young enough to be her son and who is more interested in amateur dramatics and Melanie than in police work; Max Raymond, failed doctor (a common theme in Hannah’s work) and now saxophonist whose main concern is his wife’s ex-lover who is tracking him down; John Roman, Vietnam vet whose wife is dying of cancer; Peden, an alcoholic lay preacher who lives in and steals from a junkyard and the orphans, some of whom become Mortimer’s whores.

With this explosive mixture, it can only end badly and, of course, it does. But, as ever, Hannah keeps the story moving forward at a furious pace, so you are never bored though, at times, you may be at a loss to know how we got where we are. His characters, all larger than life, are superb and probably make you wonder what the hell is going on down in Mississippi. Oh, and if you didn’t know, the title comes from Bob Dylan’s song.

Publishing history

First published 2001 by Atlantic Monthly Press