Excerpts from a Reading Journal, 2010
The course a third-way done and my head full of books I really should have been reading, I looked about my shelves for a distraction and found a long forgotten copy of Hey Jack! This being a Barry Hannah novel I’d owned for fifteen years but somehow never read. I love Hannah – so this was an odd oversight (perhaps I had been put off by its somewhat silly title, or perhaps its diabolical cover of popsicle-shaped trees shading a lawn strewn with stray golf balls – not sure). Anyway, I ignored all the other competing titles on my list. I started reading it on the first Saturday of the mid-year break and finished it the next day. It’s more a novella than a novel but, whatever, I loved it. It had all the usual Hannah wonders of lyrical invention surrounding love and wickedness: ‘Jack was completely new, in his hate’; ‘We had a fight. I accused her of hysterical malice.’ And then of course there were his half-crazed characters:
Once there was, here where I live, a tall, pale, hypochondrial professor whose life and hopes had been so entirely discredited that he slept most of the day, unwilling to expend another chance on life, art, love, or even weather. Yet he would rise occasionally for a purchase on that perfect laziness that amazed and confounded his friends and students and brought with it the inkling of some minor treachery against those who might have been brave or bought, with their little allowances, even a tenth of their dreams.
That is a novel he wrote just there. Makes you feel little.
I told Laura (my partner) that it was the book I wish I was writing. And I think, by accident, I started to try to imitate it. I mean, I actually started writing a short story to get this out of my system, and it just felt so great, copying his syntax and whatever. I loved writing it. Really it was just a complete and utter rip off of my favourite story of his, ‘Love too Long.’ I just wanted to get into his skin for a bit. But then – it seeped into my novel, not my silly and adoring imitations but rather the ugliness he so endearingly engages you with. And not the ugliness of Hey Jack! but rather that of his most dissolutely amoral novel Ray. I put into my characters all this stupidity and malice without the love that Hannah is able to infuse into his ratbags so effortlessly – it is just there in his work, this odd, purulent love. In my piece it was absent. It was just choked up with rot. Oh well. Never mind. But Hey Jack! was something. The narrator obsessed with his time in the Korean war, living between the now (early eighties I think) and the Korean war. Here he goes:
To make things short, I am in love and I am also a veteran of Korea, with big guns pointing straight at me, never knowing when and if they would announce: You die. You die, man in green, with three quarters of your college education and all your memorable thoughts about the threat of snow in the air (still love the feel of that humid threat, heavy with meaning), all that behind you now. All that over, because snow on your head dead as your love for the wife back home, and no children. Not even a poem or decent love letter left behind.
But now I’m in love with a woman in Jack’s café.
The narration is obsessed with the owner of this café, Jack, who in turn is obsessed with his daughter’s relationship with a rock star – a vile man who has moved his family into an ancient civil war mansion, from whose attic the insane great grandpa (named Double Gramps for God’s sake) shoots chickens in the yard with his rifle all day long. I mean… you read this stuff and you love it and want to sidle up next to it, and get into trouble, or I at least, as a writer, get into trouble. I found myself just wanting to follow his mode of storytelling through to some kind of logic. But the brilliant thing about this madman of a writer is that you can’t. His novels constantly shift, there seems to be an inner logic but it is always undercut by the intrusion of something into the text – things such as story, such as the world. In the above quote he starts out wanting to tell a simple story but the intrusion of memory sabotages the linear progression of his little tale. He wants to tell you he is in love (he does this all the time in the book, insists on telling you) but this is tempered by this impossible and confused memory of the snow, dead. His whole narrative seems to be like this, it seems to be heading in some logical direction and then is distracted by the intrusion of the unknown or known and the just damned distracting, like sex, like booze, like poetry. It seems his characters would kill for good poetry. And half the time reading Hannah, that is what you get. Good poetry:
One day I saw a Chinese Communist young man so willing to die, with his white fur suit on, I shot him to pieces before he stopped smiling.
Alice, his darling, was threatened. She was of age, she was of plenty of age, and he happened to know about it, but now that he did, he knew too much history and he was near insane.
History makes/drives you insane? Sounds like a fair call. It occurs in his other novels/collections rather often. I think of Ray wherein the protagonist is driven mad by the constant intrusion of the American Civil War and the Vietnam War into his personal narrative. And this seems to be his gothic intent. It is so open: history is the intruder, the dark intruder, memory the dark intruder, regret the amulet that keeps it all at bay, the garlic and crucifix. I love Hannah and wish I could get even half way to him. And why do I say it is dangerous for a writer to try and imitate him? Because: 1), you can’t. 2) if you try you will go insane. 3) you have to learn all his tricks of language and you won’t because they don’t belong to you and he is from Vicksburg (he’s not, but all his characters are) and you are from Lower Hutt (though I have been through Vicksburg, it was pretty and there were steam paddle boats on the Mississippi. Also, I had a very nice gumbo and grits for lunch). 4) He is someone who can create characters who are complete scum but utterly loveable. Try imitating this and everyone you know will hate you – even your mother, who never read a word you wrote.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
David Coventry is a Wellington-based writer. This extract comes from the novel Shipton-Pearce, drafted during the 2010 IIML Masters programme.