WELCOME TO TUSCALOOSA, ALABAMA, and the world of Ray, a doctor, a former fighter pilot, a man of curious and wondrous perceptions. Ray tells this story, and he is one of the strangest first-person narrators you will ever meet. He has a tendency to float, Ray does. He drifts into other people's minds and lives, into the deep past, the Civil War for instance. The world baffles and bewilders him; he baffles and bewilders himself. Is he crazy? Probably. But if he is, it is only because he is so closely attuned to the everyday madness of men and women everywhere about him. So closely attuned in fact, that he often slips into the madness himself. "The other night one of the deranged creeps got out of his car at the emergency room, swinging a Magnum in his hand. He had already swatted his granddaughter in the head with it, plus shot his regular daughter . . .
"I had been shooting the .30/30 with my boy Barry that day.
"I asked him to ride into the back lot with me, because I was a doctor who understood him. Something about my stern eyes that calms even wild men down. He gave me the gun. We got way out there where nobody could hear. I played some country music for him while I pulled a towel over the barrel of the .30/30 and rested it into his ribs.
"'What was you going to say?'"
"'Light up a cigarette for me,' I said.
"While he did, I let one go through him."
If you come to Dr. Ray's emergency room in bad trouble from having shot someone, Dr. Ray is apt to shoot you. Yes, indeed. But appropriate response is not his only trouble. Sometimes he gets stumped and stopped by a single word.
"Nether . That's a good one. Hang on to a word like nether .
"Her nether hoot. No, I don't nether. This is the netherlands and it will nether get worse. That is the awfulest netherest laughter. "I just threw up my netherest soul."
But Dr. Ray is not your ordinary, modern, hapless jerk caught in the willy-nilly winds of fate, never understanding what his trouble is. He understands. He knows. "I am infected with every disease I ever tried to cure. I am a vicious nightmare of illnesses. God cursed me with a memory that holds everything in my brain. There is no forgetting with me. Every name, every foot, every disease, every piece of jewelry hanging from an ear. Nothing is hazy."
Living under the curse of such a memory, Dr. Ray finds himself in some strange places. Throughout the novel, for instance, he fights the Civil War. "We are in the Maryland hills, and three hundred yards in front of us are the Federals, about fifty of them in skirmish line . . . .
"Jeb Stuart is as weary as the rest of us, but he calls for sabers out. Our uniforms are rotting off us . . . .
"Stuart says to me, 'Hold two hundred horses with you, Captain. Let us start the cannons and I will go forward.'
"Then we kissed each other, as men who are about to die."
What kind of story can be told by a jet fighter pilot who fought -- who fights -- in the Civil War? The answer is a damn fine one. Here Barry Hannah very nearly merges reader and experience, greatly diminishing the distance that has always separated the two. In this novel, there are no transitions of time or space, but what emerges is a narrative that has the kind of unity and coherence that we associate with the best fiction. Every action, incident and perception echoes every other. Dr. Ray's best friend, Charlie DeSoto, is a kind of mirror image of himself. Every night Charlie DeSoto's neighbor comes and crawls around in the back yard, wallowing around in the leaves, before finally disappeaing through a hole in the fence. It is disconcerting to Charlie, but not unbearable. Charlie, himself, is full of strange longings and desires. At one point, he is sitting at his desk talking with a man who is holding a gun. He lifts his leg and tells the man to shoot him in the thigh because he needs some pain. The man shoots him. It seems to help Charlie.
This novel hangs in the memory like a fishhook. It will haunt you long after you have finally put it down. Barry Hannah is a talent to reckon with, and I can only hope that Ray finds the audience it deserves.