In December 2009, while home for the holidays in Meridian, MS, the town where Barry Hannah was born, I had a sudden feeling he was going to die soon. The feeling did not cause me to grieve in advance for one of my favorite writers. It caused me to buy a used copy of his out-of-print novel Nightwatchmen on Amazon before his death jacked up the price.
Barry Hannah sometimes jokingly referred to the book in third-person as “Barry Hannah’s ‘lost’ novel.” Published by Viking in 1973, Nightwatchmen was widely disparaged by critics, sold poorly, and, at the author’s wish, has never been back in print. That Hannah died two months after I bought a copy — his poor health was widely known, which is to say, my premonition wasn’t inexplicable — kept me from reading Nightwatchmen until recently. Over the past few years I preferred to know there was still one of his novels I could experience for the first time.
Now that I have read it, I’m glad I waited. Unobstructed by the pall of his death, it is easier to see the connection Hannah’s second book has with many of those that followed, the light it casts on what was to come.
Part academic satire and part murder mystery, Nightwatchmen is set at the fictional Southwestern Mississippi University, which, according to the jacket copy, “is under siege by the Absurd.” Someone known as The Knocker is terrorizing campus. This individual sneaks up behind people and conks them on the back of their heads. “He took no money from them. He took no tests or materials,” says one character of the situation. “He knocked out two women. He did not molest these women, either of them; just let them lie unconscious.” Matters escalate when two night watchmen are killed, their heads left in toilet bowls, badges rammed into each of their gaping mouths. No one knows if the person going around knocking heads is the same person going around cutting them off.
A makeshift investigation into the series of crimes is conducted by a man named Thorpe Trove, the owner of a mansion that serves as a boarding house for many graduate students from the school. Sympathetic confidant, avuncular intermediary, and semi-passive observer, Trove is to his tenants what Edna Garrett was to Natalie, Jo, Blair, and Tootie on The Facts of Life. His oddball narration frames this oddball book. “I have hair like a ball of dead orange leaves, purplish prescription glasses which I wear year round, and, I do fear, a sweet and clever look.” Scattered throughout his narration, though, are tape recordings Trove makes of people associated with the crimes, part of his effort to catch The Knocker and/or The Killer. Those recordings become miniature character studies, as seen in this passage spoken by a graduate student:
One of these days I will meet a girl with a sunburned navel who will see me burning up my birth certificate and my Ph.D. degree in a small fire on the beach and she will be enchanted by this, because it will have great style, and she will throw in her ticket with me, and we will make the present burn, my friends; we will eat one another like seafood.
The taped narratives provide little help in finding the culprit. Toward the end of the book, however, after Hurricane Camille destroys parts of campus as well as Thorpe Trove’s mansion, the mystery of the knocking and killing recedes in importance compared to how the characters in Nightwatchmen, following the disaster, continue on with their lives.
If the novel, judging by such a plot summary, sounds crazy, that only means you are not. Barry Hannah, after all, was someone who drunkenly shot an arrow through the door of his wife’s house during their separation, who dried out in Alabama’s state asylum, who, on his release, immediately returned with a carton of cigarettes for his fellow inmates. Guy like that knows from crazy.
The misbehavior that contributed to Hannah’s renown, his dipsomania and his irascibility, his prurience and his hoplophilia, is as well remembered as Nightwatchmen is forgotten. “I sat a princedom of literary fame,” he once wrote. “Then turned beast and threw it all away.” Nonetheless not enough has been made of how often people say much has been made of the Bad Barry. He was a man whose life was so colorful — shooting holes in the floorboard of his car, pulling a gun on a classroom of students — that, when people tell those stories, they don’t preface them with, “Tell me if you’ve heard this one,” but rather something more along the lines of, “Even though I know you’ve heard this one, it’s so good I’m going to tell it to you anyway.”
A similar concept applies to his fiction. People don’t recommend Barry Hannah. They simply say, “Airships,” and wait for the other person to nod and repeat the title as confirmation that they, too, have read Airships and loved it.
During the time he worked on his second novel Hannah was in a liminal state as an artist and as a person. His writing was coming together as his marriage was falling apart. Nightwatchmen is therefore both artistically and personally a transitional work for Hannah. Its borderline campy plot and rotating cast of narrators reveal it as a juncture in more than chronology between its predecessor and successor. The former, Geronimo Rex, is a traditional bildungsroman that, albeit episodic, centers on one protagonist, while the latter, Airships, is collection of unhinged short stories with fragmented, disjunctive points of view. Moreover, the tape recordings in Nightwatchmen are a physical incarnation of what would become a metaphysical approach in Hannah’s fourth book, Ray: the representation of many different times and many different voices within a singular moment.
Even at the sentence level Nightwatchmen displays the shift in Hannah toward polyphonic delirium. “I have an intuition that genius is going to hit my brain like a comet if I can wait just a few more years,” says one character, using language indicative of the author’s previous work, to which another character, using language indicative of the author’s future work, responds, “When it does could I maybe stand nearby and eat some of the raw light?”
One of the narrators in Nightwatchmen is Harriman Monroe, a drunken, ribald poet who, when asked what he writes about, gives an answer applicable to Hannah’s own work. “This happy disease my life. This hagridden bathroom epic. What I can balance on my peniscycle.” Monroe was formerly the protagonist of Geronimo Rex. Such a technique is typical of Hannah. In the daisy chain of his career he often hooked the bloom of a new book through stem of a past one. The novel The Tennis Handsome is umbilically tied to the stories “Return to Return” and “Midnight and I’m Not Famous Yet,” for example, as is Yonder Stands Your Orphan to “Water Liars,” “All the Old Harkening Faces at the Rail,” and “High-Water Railers.”
Still, despite the presence of Monroe in Nightwatchmen, Hannah invented a wholly new and different protagonist in Thorpe Trove. Consider his name. The word “trove” is derived from “treasure trove,” which in turn derives from the Anglo-French tresor trové, or “found treasure.” This character so lost in life has a name that means found.
At the time he was writing the novel Hannah could have been considered lost as well. Early on in Nightwatchmen Trove visits a library:
There were only two rows, one marked F and the other O. I asked about this and the librarian officer — who was reeking with gin — told me F was for Fuck Books and the O was for Other. I asked him which he would recommend. He said one was for animals and the other for intellectuals. I would have to choose for myself. It was a hard choice because I didn’t know myself — which one I really was.
Hannah was facing a similar choice in his work. Fuck Book or Other? Animal or intellectual? To find himself as a writer he had to finish what is now a lost book.
Although Nightwatchmen isn’t one of Hannah’s best novels, it contains traces of them, the expansive and youthful qualities of Geronimo Rex and the elegiac qualities of Hey Jack! and Boomerang, with just enough of Ray’s screwball nihilism to leaven the mix. This novel can be seen as the terroir, all the subsequent ones its varietals. With its blend of parody and pulp, Nightwatchmen — a game of Clue gone collegiate, Porky’s meets Rashomon, a chicken-fried Agatha Christie whodunit — foreshadows the use of tropes from the western genre in Never Die. Its large cast of characters predates the same feature in Yonder Stands Your Orphan. Its widespread array of events predates the same feature in The Tennis Handsome.
Those features are unfortunately the least successful ones in the book. Its cast of characters is a bit too large. The purpose of its use of genre tropes remains too much in flux. Its array of events is a bit too widespread.
Even Hannah agreed. In an interview titled “Bat Out of Hell,” with the calm bemusement typical of him when looking back at his stormy years, he said, “I’d like to rewrite my second book, Nightwatchmen, because I wrote it under hurried circumstance on the heels of my first book. It had no editing, and with just a few changes on the order of less equals more it could be a fine book.” Such regrets notwithstanding, that the book was a failure isn’t as important, I believe, so much as that it was a necessary failure, one that deserves to be read.
Barry Hannah died of a heart attack on March 1, 2010. Ever since that day, I’ve wondered how Hannah would have felt about whatever dimwit, half-wit, or nitwit who, after paying more than $40 for a copy, might try to redeem a novel he himself disparaged. He probably would have had a good laugh.
Image via nndb.com