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Barry Hannah: Geronimo Rex

Hannah’s first novel is one of those white Southern boy growing up and learning about sex, violence and racism, often the hard way novels. The hero/narrator – Harriman (Harry) Monroe – comes from a well-to-do family in Dreams of Pine, Louisiana. His father is the second largest employer in town, owning a mattress factory and generally treating his employees well, particularly Harley Butte, a light-skinned African-American who is passionate for music, particularly Sousa marches. Butte works for Monroe Senior, while studying music, but, despite being made foreman, his aim is to direct the best high school band in the country, something he comes close to achieving on several occasions. His path crosses Harry Monroe’s several times throughout the novel and they remain friends.

Harry also has a love for music and becomes a skilled trumpeter. Like most teenagers, he fumbles with sex, learns about violence (he acquires a gun early on) and discovers that racism in the South is alive and well. He is also somewhat inspired by the exploits of Geronimo, hence the title. Despite his father’s wish that he goes to Columbia (his father is obsessed with New York), he ends up at a small religious college in Mississippi (based on Mississippi College, Hannah’s own alma mater). There he shares a room with Bobby Dove Freece, a somewhat strange man, stepson of a retired general, who, like Monroe, is unsure of what to do with his life. Both dabble in various disciplines, with Monroe, hopping from music to medicine to pharmacology to English lit. However, the key point in their life is Whitfield Peter. Whitfield is the local mental hospital and Peter is a past (and future) denizen of this establishment. He is also rabidly racist, with both Harley Butte and Freece’s stepfather being victims of his actions. They and their friend Jerry Silas cross paths frequently with Peter, complicated by the fact that Monroe falls for Peter’s niece Catherine, who lives with her uncle. On several occasions, shots are fired – Silas manages to wound him and, at the end, so does Monroe. However, our heroes generally escape unscathed.

This is a long, rambling novel, often lacking in focus, as it drifts first one way and then another, as Hannah is clearly trying to put all his early experiences into it. Nevertheless, it is funny, ribald and often taking where you don’t expect, which makes it a thoroughly enjoyable read.

Publishing history

First published 1972 by Viking Press