Sunday, July 02, 2006
Barry Hannah’s Hot and Cool Electrics
Ever since we took out a weekend subscription, I have stopped reading the newspaper. Not sure if I am going bonkers or what. I just prefer to slow dance with De Campo after about four afternoon beers and a pot of chilli. Echo, the neighbour who gave me four dollars to use my lighter so he could burn the edges of his new carpet, I shot him in the thigh. Why I am talking like fifth-rate Barry Hannah, oh perhaps it's because I've been reading the infectious master…
Barry is a Southern poet and he knows it, tall grass and he mows it, loves his wife and he shows it, etc.
Initially I wanted to express my adulation for the book ‘Sabbath's Theater’, which I heartily devoured recently. It’s one of the most sickeningly brilliant books ever, but the material is so distasteful and I don't know whether my mother still reads this blog; she already disapproved of the content once and the idea of me writing about Mickey Sabbath’s envelope-pushing hi-jinx in the bedroom and on his ex-lover’s grave is probably better left unexplored. Instead I will rave about Barry Hannah, who’s 119-page novel ‘Ray’, I finished more recently (8.35am Friday morning on Tram #75).
I discovered Barry Hannah in the only issue of The Believer I ever bought. I'm not proud of this it's an excellent magazine. Inside there was an interview with my idol Stephen Malkmus that quoted his friend DC Berman, who writes poetry for The Believer, but is better known as one of the best songwriters in the universe, fronting the Silver Jews. The interviewer says to the interviewee bet you’re a Barry Hannah fan and Malkmus, who dabbles in tough love and gets very coy at the best of times says, ‘ah yea, back when I was 18’ (as if today it was beneath him). The cheek! Malkmus feigning precocity like David Nichols saying he was over White Heat /White Light by age 4 (I suppose all the stars do it). Malkmus mentions how DC, a Southern dude like Mr. Hannah, made a pilgrimage once and discovered a grizzled dude in a black leather jacket riding a big motorcycle and dripping with an off-putting masculinity.
Biker chic notwithstanding my curiosity was piqued, I picked up his first novel 1976’s Geronimo Rex. I read it, slapped my thigh and said GERONIMO! proceeding to fall off the Empire State Building and into the arms of…you guessed it: Ned Beatty. But I digress.
Reading G. Rex, I instantly identified the Hannah/Malkmus literary connection during a rite of passage sequence, in which the main character, if memory serves, persuades a young lady to go down on him on the last day of high school. “Suck…CESS!” he repeats. It sounds awful, I know, but as I recall, it worked really well. On Pavement’s first album 1991's Slanted and Enchanted, Malkmus sings, “I was dressed for success, but success it never comes.” THEN on an alternate version of the song found on the S and E Redux reissue from a couple years back, Malkmus changes the phrasing, wailing: “I was dressed for SUCK!..cess it never comes…”. Voila! The connection was made.
Oh dear. I just realised this would only be of interest to my mother.
I need a nap.
An unreliable Geronimo Rex précis in 92 words: Harry Monroe excels in trumpeting and poetry. His music teacher, a wise jazzbo, is his mentor, but Harry quickly surpasses him in cool by donning a scarf ala French Romantic and brandishing a pistol. There's villainy and all kinds of suspense involving crackpot losers, a blubbery villain who has a hot wife and owns the town, plus a classic parade sequence and guff about marching bands. It’s Raise the Roofbeams, Carpenters meets Confederacy of the Dunces meets Look Homeward, Angel meets another novelist who writes in stunning poetic truths - Denis Johnson.
Stylistically, Ray reminds me of D. Johnson’s Jesus’ Son the most. Funnier, but less poignant. Screwball non sequiturs recalling early McGuane. Doctor Ray works at the hospital. He’s a boozer, a user, a sex machine, irresponsible prescriber of meds, vigilante, poet and a local legend who races around in a Corvette. He’s also easily distracted (at one point he falls into a women's privates during a routine appendectomy). People die in the township usually from a gunshot wound. Ray has a gun and he likes to use it. Ray is a complex man. I think the Village Voice, in 1980, said it best: “Ray is a song…about the electrics, cool and hot, of being alive.”