Barry Hannah sings a drunken ode to youth, beauty and the power of language

Holding your breath can be a career-ending habit for any skydiver. Caught up in the moment, it is all too easy to forget this most basic of bodily functions. Then pass out, forget to pull the rip cord, and fall witless to an early death. To protect against such a fate, military paratroopers fill their lungs with air and shout the word “Geronimo” before leaping from the plane. The word keeps them breathing, and alive, amidst the dangerous swirl of adrenaline and gravity.

Barry Hannah’s “Geronimo Rex” reads with the breathless intensity of a skydiver’s plummet to the earth. Published in 1972, the story was Hannah’s first novel, and was nominated for a National Book Award in 1973. It tells the scattered but hilarious tale of young Harry Monroe as he tries to navigate the raunchy and troubled swirl of his adolescence in Dream of Pines, Louisiana during the 1960s. Hannah, whose off-kilter stylistic sensibilities were displayed so brilliantly in the short story collection “Airships”, pulls no punches in this first-person account of a bigoted yet big-hearted youth trying to make sense of the changes sweeping over a South besotted by its own flawed conception of self.

The story begins with young Harry Monroe watching the Dream of Pines marching band practice on the football field. Hannah’s prose approaches something resembling religious fervor when he writes about music:

First time they hit the field at an early September football game, it was celestial – a blue marching orchestra dropped out of the blue stars. The spectators just couldn’t imagine this big and fine a noise. They were so good the football teams hesitated to follow them; the players trickled out late to the second half, not believing they were good enough to step on the same turf that the Dream of Pines band had stepped on. The whites living on the border of the mills heard it, and it was so spectacular to the ear, emanating from near the colored high school, they thought it must be evil. I mean this was a band that played Sousa marches and made the sky bang together … the fact probably was, by what I saw and heard that afternoon hiding under the bleachers at the colored football field, Dream of Pines was the best high school band in at least the world … They made you want to pick up a rifle and just get killed somewhere.

As you can see, Hannah is no stranger to hyperbole. And while the story grows increasingly offbeat and cartoonish as the novel progresses, the cumulative effect of Hannah’s impossibly comic metaphors is transfixing. There is very little in the way of what might be called plot here: Harry Monroe outgrows Dream of Pines, where “we had teachers quitting all the time for reasons of pregnancy, higher pay in the insurance field, or personal despair.” Harry heads to college, becomes fixated with the idea that he is some whitebread reincarnation of Geronimo, and together with his roommate tries to dispense a hamhanded kind of justice to a white supremacist peripherally involved in the murder of Medgar Evars. Along the way Harry half-heartedly tries his hand at music, falls in and out of an immature brand of love, gets married, and realizes that the colored bandleader named Harley Butte might be the only hero he’s ever known.

Butte seems to me the real center of this book, and I wondered why Hannah did not spend more pages on his story. A musical genius, a child of the South struggling to maintain his musical integrity against the flood of rock-and-roll mediocrity sweeping the nation, Butte is a doomed symbol of the South these characters wax nostalgic about:

“Where’s your band?” I said.
“And what the hell’re you doing here?” said Harley. “I been looking for you on TV. Everybody likes those Beatles. I thought you mighta got in with them.”
“It’s been a long time. I’ve been in med school.”
“Who told you to do that?” He seemed angry.
“On my own. I haven’t played my horn for three years.”
“What’d they tell you in college?”
“I told him, Harley. He was playing good trumpet,” Silas jumped in.
“I know he was playing good trumpet. He got a scholarship on playing trumpet.” He hung down his arms, disappointed, disappointed in me almost to the point of wrath. “I’ll bet somebody told you music doesn’t usually make money. Yeah, I’ve heard that enough times, them telling me.”
… “You have good music here.” Harley suddenly pulled out a band piece called “Charlemagne.” Lower on the page was the composer’s name: H. J. Butte. “This is yours truly.” I examined the score. It was a march, full of runs. In the margins were directives; I should say imperatives, with exclamation points, and inside the cover was a short, exhorting essay on how this piece must be played. The publisher was New York firm.
“I can’t think right off any band that could cut this,” I said.
“My band can cut it,” said Harley.

Hannah’s disjointed rebel yell of a story proves that the written word – even at its most obscene and discomfiting – has a power that cannot be denied. Or, in the words of Harry Monroe: “The band to me was like a river tearing down a dam when they played, and you just don’t hang around finding out what’s imperfect when that happens.”