It seems somehow not on point to say that the central character of Barry Hannah’s short novel Ray (1980) is akin to Rabbit Angstrom, Walker Percy’s Will Barrett or Binx Bolling, Augie March, Yossarian in Heller’s Catch 22, Lewis and Ed in Deliverance, any number of Cheever protagonists, or of Tim O’Brien’s. And it would seem not the point as well to remark that novels in which the main character suffers Vietnam flashbacks are hackneyed clichés. Because in Hannah’s work style is the point. The style of narration, the interlocking and nonchronological chapters, the alternations in tone and mood, most of all the wild and intense prose. This does not mean there’s no substance, only that style carries the novel, propels the substance, and is what makes Ray so memorable.
Ray is a medical doctor who flew F-4 Phantoms in Vietnam. He’s also a would-be poet. He’s married to a beautiful woman with beautiful children. Socially and financially he has what many would call a great life. Yet it’s clear that he has difficulty accepting who and where he is in life. He’s had addiction problems and apparently lost and then got back his medical license. Friends often come to him for drugs, and he’s more than willing to prescribe them. He’s constantly thinking about sex, if he’s not actually in the process of having it. He has sex throughout this novel.
It seems too prosaic to say that Ray experiences a crisis in this novel, or that his situation as a whole is one of crisis—of coming to terms with his urges, his guilt and sense of failure, his love for his wife, his love for other women, his lack of scruples, the tension between wildness and convention.
Ray as a Southern man of the late 20th century certainly possesses some of the worst traits of his kind: racism, misogyny, and classism. He makes no qualms about them—he seems aware, to a limited extent, of his attitudes towards women, but he shows little hesitation to use racist terms, even though he credits a black man for saving his life in Vietnam. There’s no way, I think, of defusing these traits—they’re unarguably present, part of Ray’s complicated character, part of who he is. He is certainly not a typical Southerner, in any sense of the word that I can come up with, and besides I don’t believe in “typical” Southerners anyway, but Ray’s certainly a remarkable Southerner. The racism, and other aspects of his character, are significant negative traits. I wouldn’t teach this novel to undergraduates because of Ray’s racism. Moreover, I do not find some sort of counterbalancing correlative in the novel to Ray’s attitudes. Are we to like him because every black man he refers to is, by his term, a “nigger”? Is Hannah making an issue of Ray’s racism, or is he just showing it as part of his character? What makes Ray typical of an individual in contemporary America is his narcissism, his concern with his own situation to the exclusion of everyone else. Women he objectifies—even his wife and his sometimes lover Sister—especially them. I can’t say that the characters in Airships or in Geronimo Rex are much different, so to an extent racism and sexism are part not only of Ray’s innate character but maybe of Hannah’s as well. Of course, such a conclusion merits more thought than I’ve given here. It’s also possible than Hannah wants to make a point of observing no social conventions at all, no “rules” of political correctness. Ray’s use of racist terms, his sexism, his imagining what it would be like to throw a nine-year old from the cockpit of a plane at 20,000 feet are all part of this rebellion against the very concept of social or racial or political barriers. Maybe we are not supposed to like Ray--this self-obsessed doctor-pilot-poet who takes advantage of anyone within reach, who struggles against and then sinks willingly into the narcotizing somnolence of upper-class late 20th century Southern affluence.
Ray is the narrator. He sometimes starts a paragraph by referring to himself in the third person and then switches to first person. He switches in time back and forth between different periods of his life, mainly his Vietnam years and the present day, as well as to the Civil War, where an imagined or real ancestor, or Ray himself, reports on battle experiences. The past haunts Ray—his past marriage and former relationships, his wartime experiences, people he has known. But not all the narrative is about him. A long digression early in the novel concerns the desire of his friend Charlie DeSoto to murder an elderly neighbor. Another digression excerpts a real or imagined passage from the diary of Hernando DeSoto, which Charlie is reading. There may be a link of some sort between the diary and the concerns of the novel but I haven’t identified them yet. Stream of consciousness, internal dialogue—these might be appropriate ways to describe the narrative method here. There’s a kind of awkward clunkiness sometimes to the pace and focus of the narrative, as if Ray (or Hannah) narrates whatever comes to mind. Is this control, or lack of control? The Charlie DeSoto digression is hilarious, but it interrupted the flow of the novel, as did the DeSoto diary entry.
Ray does talk about himself, but he talks as well about his friends and neighbors, especially his friend Charlie DeSoto and the “Hooches,” poor whites who live behind him on the verge of the swamp. The main Hooch who interests him is Sister, a troubled if not deranged 18-year-old who writes poetry and has musical aspirations. Ray ministers to other members of the Hooch family with drugs—morphine and valium—to Sister he provides not only drugs but sex. They’re lovers on an intermittent basis throughout the novel, but he also loves his beautiful upper-class wife Westy. They satisfy different needs—Westy is respectability, affluence, prestige, the attainment of a certain level of achievement in the upper-middle class life he lives. Sister is an outlet to wildness, the rapidly receding days of his youth, of his desire not to give in to the lifestyle Westy represents, the lifestyle that, in spite of all his self-recriminations, he is clearly a part of.
Charlie DeSoto is really just another version of Ray. Describing Charlie, Ray is describing himself. The Desoto digression early in the novel is narrated as if Ray himself is the author. We know what Charlie says and does and thinks. Is this because Charlie has described himself to Ray, or is it because Ray has imagined himself into Charlie, a sort of alter ego?
“ . . . I went seriously into Fine Arts after that, where you could play with yourself and get applauded for it.”
“Toward the end of the ceremony, Mrs. Hooch raises a dreadful animal wail of fearful, unknown, soprano lamentation. But the wooden Indian in the station wagon never batted an eye.”
“Rising sins from my past are coming up and haunting my insides, and there’s this miserable dew on my buckle loafers.”
“Yes, I have seen the rain coming down on a sunny day. I have seen the moon hot and the sun cold. I have seen almost everything dependable go against its nature. I have seen needless death and I have seen needless life.”
“Now I guess I should give you swaying trees and the rare geometry of cows.”