"The supreme test of any civilization," American anthropologist Margaret Mead wrote, is "finding something productive" for the men to do, and Hollywood, never one to shy away from an opportunity, has cashed in on the male predicament, creating clueless characters from Ralph Kramden to Homer Simpson who take themselves very seriously even though they have nowhere serious to take themselves.
To mine the comedy of manhood, Hollywood has often turned to Southern writers, who since Appomattox have understood male failure better than their compatriots. Oxford, Mississippi's Barry Hannah is one such writer, and "Yonder Stands Your Orphan" abounds with vividly cinematic depictions of guys, who are, as he puts it, "waiting for life to instruct them."
The novel, Hannah's first major work of fiction in a decade, begins with a scene of two bass fishermen, Cecil and Robbie, slouching over a roadhouse bar in the "resort" town of Eagle Lake, where a faded pink-and-brown water cooler filled with beer is but one emblem of "its absolute freedom from a woman's touch."
Soon we meet other distinctly male screw-ups, like the eccentric World War II veteran Ulrich, who is so fixated on designing "personal flying" contraptions that he asks everyone he meets for their weight, and the novel's protagonist, "Mad" Man Mortimer, a casino owner who somehow manages to surround himself with women "like those busty PhD women in rocket-ship movies. Present for no clear reason." Hannah's characters, however, are strikingly different from Ralph and Homer in one key respect: They know far too much to be funny.
Whereas Ralph and Homer merely look befuddled when they notice people chuckling at them, Hannah's characters know the joke is on them. They lash out against the cruelty they perceive in our laughter in ways that are shockingly brutal even for the violence-strewn genre in which Hannah, Richard Ford and other Southern he-man novelists write. Crack a smile and Hannah is there to chastise us with revelations meant to show that the male predicament is far more tragic than comic:
That Cecil and Robbie, far from merry drunkards, are actually consumed with despair at their inability to make anything more than a "mudpatch" of their land, which is "richer in soil than the Valley Nile." That such "bassers expend a ratio of money to bass almost exactly that of modern warfare. In Vietnam, for instance, the budget was one million dollars per dead Viet Cong." That Ulrich's flying machines end up castrating their pilots. And that Mortimer did not earn his nickname "mad" for nothing.
At one point, when a waiter at a drive-in hands Mortimer a chili dog and diet Pepsi, "Mortimer reached out the window as if to offer the boy a long column of change but it was a box-cutter instead. He cut down the whole length of the kid's forearm, which caused him to shriek and almost faint, scattering the food."
Such grotesqueries abound in "Yonder Stands Your Orphan." They are offered up as dark truths whose depth contrasts starkly with Hollywood's shallow tinsel. Mortimer's violence, Hannah writes at one point, makes his victims "face the music of their essential selves."
Hannah tries to explain Mortimer's rage by showing how the aging playboy has been plagued by guilt since leading an old girlfriend to suicide, but the narrative is sketchy and halfhearted.
More telling is this eloquently fiery oratory in which a biker-turned-preacher suggests that the men of Eagle Lake are suffering like the guys in William Faulkner's Yoknapatawpha County; only where Faulkner's men were lamenting the loss of the Civil War, Hannah's are mourning the loss of its very memory:
Born into a bad cause, lost at birth,
we late Confederates so proud and stuffed. There was a time when we smiled and charged the hills of artillery.
There was a time we did not doubt.
Now you lounge, rain in the trees outside, but you see nothing.
You charge only at the sports store, the toy store, the Radio Shack
We [Southerners] are not even kind to our own retarded ...
We go off to other states and make fun and literature and Hollywood movies about them. The best Southern art on screen is stupid and heartwarming. But you do not know what is beyond the window of your own home.
The crumbs in your navel are your history.
Hannah and Faulkner have more than just the hometown of Oxford, Miss., in common. Both came to Hollywood to make money as screenwriters, only to chafe at what they perceived to be the superficiality and predictability of its popular culture.
Faulkner toiled for years at Warner Brothers and MGM. "I never learned how to write movies or how to take them seriously," he said after quitting, leaving behind a desk filled with empty liquor bottles and a legal pad on which one line appears over and over: "Boy meets girl. Boy meets girl. Boy meets girl. Boy meets ...."