Donald Hays' first novel, "The Dixie Association," a tightly focused paean to minor league baseball and the dignity of dreams, was a solid delight. His second, "The Hangman's Children," is far more ambitious and no less pleasurable. Set in the torn and tumultuous '60s, careening from the Ozarks to the Florida Keys to San Francisco to its climax in Chicago's Grant Park in the summer of 1968, fueled by wild imagination and daring risks, "The Hangman's Children," like the times it portrays, survives the excesses that make it possible.
Trying to summarize a work as densely rich as "The Hangman's Children" is akin to describing the ecology of an old growth forest on a postcard. However, Hays takes one risk that is central to many, and it suggests the novel's powers as well as some problems.
Point of view may be the most critical artistic decision for a novel, and Hays' choice is the high-rolling parlay of a gambling fool--three first-person narrators. To juice the action, they speak in rotation, one is a woman (most writers agree opposite gender first-person narration will test one's chops, and usually bust them), and each narrator assumes a shadow role in the Hangman road show from which the novel takes its title.
Hays' narrative choice is not as perilous as juggling live grenades in a hurricane while playing "Amazing Grace" on the banjo, but it's close. The constant shifting invites confusion and risks the reader's ability to deeply identify with any one character. Not only must each narrator tell his or her own story, but the piece of the story they share; to blend without blurring demands masterful orchestration. Most important, each teller must be equal to the tale.
Samuel Langhorne Maledon (references to Twain abound) is a middle-aged con man, road show impresario, asphalt philosopher, and general operating manual for the outlaw spirit. To him, "Ain't nothing sacred but the way out," because if you don't stay free you can't celebrate those pleasures which are life's point: the open road, fine whiskey with old friends, sweet loving and all the heathen laughter you can stand.
An old buddy and accomplice calls Maledon "the only middle-aged free man I know. The oldest child in the world. Huckleberry Finn forever. Keeps lighting out for the territories."
However, while Maledon's delight in freedom may be innocent at heart, he knows it can't be realized without some practical grasp of reality, an understanding of Catch-22 being basic: They can do anything you can't stop them from doing. "They" are the Military-Church-Big Biz Machine, that kill-joy consortium of power-sluts who don't care about blood on the money as long as it isn't theirs. "You may not stop their machine," Maledon admits, "but that's no reason not to go on and piss in its tank."
Maledon has lived by his trickster's wit for years, but the road and some losses along the way are beginning to wear him down. As every hustler knows, the only mark you can't beat is the mark inside, and Maledon's weakness is his estranged son, Jesse, a draft resister determined to go to prison. The novel's animating conflict--other than staying clear of the forces of law and order--is Maledon's attempt to "save Jesse from his damn-fool conscience."
Jesse, the second narrator, doesn't want to be saved. A 20- year-old drop-out philosophy major, Jesse is a serious seeker of Spiritual Meaning, especially any deep enough to purify his conscience and thus strengthen his blows against the empire. Jesse is decidely non-violent, but he won't apply for Conscientious Objector status because he doesn't acknowledge the draft board's authority to render judgment. As Maledon says of him, "(He has) too much sense to fight and too little to run."
Jesse's narrative contributions are unfortunately consistent with his age and concerns. While he has a fine and savage eye for moral hypocrisy, he is humorless. He tediously details his meditation practices and metaphysical musings, the latter so relentlessly abstract that the ink threatens to evaporate from the page. He generally indulges his self-absorption in flights of mystic hooey, as in this randomly chosen instance: "I wait for what I know will not be what I wait for." A hundred pages into the book I was gritting my teeth at Jesse's sections. Too much like me at the same age.
Gloria Alice Dawn completes the narrative trio. Gloria never quite coheres as a character, which may be intentional. Early in the book she seems a flower child flirting with a more violent notion of revolution; then, as she reveals her background, a former homecoming queen whose contempt for her rich father has driven her to the repudiation of privilege; and finally, an Earth-mother playing nurse to Gunner Grant, a Vietnam vet whose impotence is either the result of combat trauma or the amphetamines he abuses to keep a step ahead of his demons.