HEY JACK! By Barry Hannah Dutton/Seymour Lawrence. 134 pp. $15.95
At this point in the career of Barry Hannah it seems neither impertinent nor irrelevant to ask where, precisely, this writer is headed. With the publication of "Hey Jack!," his sixth work of fiction, Hannah demonstrates nothing so much as that he has dug himself into a rut from which he seems ever more unlikely to extract himself. He is a writer of considerable gifts, but he seems content now to fritter them away on inconsequential little books that are long on woozy amiability and short on substance.
If anything, Hannah has gotten himself into the business of writing the same book over and again, though at ever-decreasing length.
His stock protagonist is a rough but (of course) sensitive good ol' boy who devotes his energies to alcohol, women, amateur philosophy and lamentation of the "new" South. Often, as in "Ray" and "Hey Jack!," this narrator is a veteran haunted by parallels between modern conflicts and the Civil War. Invariably he encounters various good-hearted embodiments of old-South virtue and new-South venality; the wars are won by the latter, but the moral victories go to the former.
In "Hey Jack!" the antiheroic protagonist is named Homer, though we do not learn his name until the novel's final page; presumably we are then to understand that we have been taken on an odyssey, though if so it certainly is a short one. Homer lives in Mississippi, where "there are exactly five subjects: money, Negroes, women, religion, and Elvis Presley." In the course of the novel's thinly padded 134 pages, Homer touches on all of them, though in no case with unduly interesting results.
The focus of Homer's interests is his friend Jack, an old man who runs a neighborly coffee shop and is the old-South-virtues figure this time around.
Jack is "the image of benign rectitude," a taciturn but good-hearted fellow whose equanimity is destroyed by Ronnie Foot, a rock star who is the new-South-venality figure in "Hey Jack!" Ronnie has his eye on Jack's lovely daughter, the 40-year-old Alice, and she returns the attention in kind; to Jack, an alliance between his cherished daughter and this churl would be proof positive that the world in general and the South in particular are beyond redemption.
While Jack is fuming about Ronnie and undertaking strategies to foil him, Homer is rhapsodizing about his newfound lover ("a spunky and gorgeous little blonde who rarefied my entire idea of myself"), and troubling his mind with memories of his military service in Korea, where he fought in the battle of Chosin. Recalling that engagement, Homer comes about as close to passion as he ever gets:
"Veteran of Korea -- the pride and the horror at the same time ... Three Chinese field armies crossed the Yalu in October 1950. They were volunteering like mad across China, wanting to kill us. Kill us in the rocks and in the pine trees, at a mean temperature of minus four degrees. We were in their back yard and they wanted to kill us very badly and there's little else to it, as that awful schoolmaster history tells us, that bald, dull, correct old-man history. We had beaten the NKs, we'd pulled down the Stalin posters in their capitol. We had the Corsairs, the Saber Jets, the F-80s, the napalm, and the white phosphorus. But it was their winter, not ours, and they had the bodies and the poverty and the Russians buying the tickets and cheering. We were Custer all over again at Chosin Reservoir. About five times I would not shoot out my whole clip on the carbine. I wanted at least two shots left. One for the gook nearest me when the horde came on, and the other for my brain."
The point of this florid reminiscence seems, in the end, to be that Homer went through hell in Korea and then came home to find there were still more battles to be fought on domestic fronts. Not surprisingly, in the fight for Alice and the soul of the South he is a loser, though as usual in Hannah's novels he finds just enough measure of consolation to carry on. The novel's end, also as usual, strives for irony.
At one point in his ramblings Homer tells a fish story, then remarks: "I had that great big tug and I missed him. I didn't even have a story to tell. And that's why I've told this one." Hannah is in the same predicament. He may have felt a tug, but it didn't give him a story to tell; he went ahead and told it anyway, with the perfunctory result that is "Hey Jack!" It leaves one wondering, though with little in the way of pleasurable anticipation, what he will come up with next