Sophia by Michael Bible. Melville House Publishing. $15.95, 128pp.
At this late date Southern literature is only slightly coherent as a marketing label, but if understood as a series of related, competing traditions, it’s vastly more interesting. And like the modern Republican Party, the umbrella of “Southern literature” shades a handful of not always easily alignable interests that often regard each other with suspicion.
For instance, there is the khaki-pants-and-seersucker strain, what you might call the Walker Percy tradition. There is the Faulkner strain, a fabricated country gentleman intent on creating a mythos of the South. (This fabricated gentleman also happens to be Ahab, unfortunately.) And then there is the evangelical degenerate strain, a ménage a trois of booze, Bible thumping, and Foghorn Leghorn. The patron saint of this strain is probably Barry Hannah, most famous for his early story collection Airships and one of the most legitimately weird postwar American writers, at least at the sentence level. Hannah taught writing at the University of Alabama and then at Ole Miss for a sizable chunk of his career, and he was famous for various apocryphal stories related to his drunken outlandishness, both in and out of the classroom. Hannah was himself a character, a presence of folk heroic proportions. (A beloved folk hero, it should be said.) Stories about Hannah were almost as important as stories by him. In his vapor trails he outlined the parameters of his own tradition, and we continue to read his disciples: the Hannahs. (Jim Harrison, who recently died, was, if not a direct disciple, a type of Hannah—a Hannah from Montana, if you will.)
Michael Bible is definitely one of the Hannahs, and this would be the case even if his latest book Sophia didn’t boast a promotional quote from Hannah himself, who’s been dead since 2010. You can trace the lineage in just a couple of pages. Here’s a sample:
Tuesday is in the river washing her hair. White Mike Jonny drowned last week and she mourns him. Clemson beat Auburn. A man dances on the roof of his Honda in the church parking lot, chugging Cutty Sark, blasting the Rush Limbaugh Show. The creek looks weird and fluorescent. The neighbor girls play Lewis and Clark, molest a male Sacajawea. Then a peach sunset.
A Hannah-disciple book has several distinct elements. It contains an evangelical’s rude energy. It views sex as the main freeway to the divine. Booze, or any other drug, is a form of Eucharist. The narrative itself is not necessarily linear, concerned with plot, “realism,” or persuasive characterization; it is more about mood and the accumulation of verbal gestures. It is more about stunt and affect than it is about world-building or diagnosing societal problems. It might satirize aspects of our world, but it does so on the way to the party, not as the party itself. And it’s usually quite funny.
I begin my review with all of this typological throat-clearing because I stand, somewhat involuntarily, in the Percy camp. (Frank Bascombe, from Richard Ford’s The Sportswriter, might refer to us collectively as the “change jinglers.”) As a general rule, the Percyites are attracted to, but ultimately frightened by, the Hannahs. The Percyites might compliment the fine filigree of wrought iron on the balcony in the Garden District, but the Hannahs are the sea-funk mildew growing on that wrought iron. The Percyites know that that these weeds will ultimately win, and they’re jealous of the Hannahs’ hearty blasphemy. I offer this as a disclaimer.
Bible’s novel is a swift 120 pages of southern religious degeneracy. Sophia is narrated by the Right Reverend Alvis T. Maloney, who has lost his church, congregation, and house, and now lives and preaches (by which I mean mostly boozes and hangs) on a boat. The location of this boat is a Southern nowhere-in-particular but feels like a version of Oxford, Mississippi. Maloney’s baloney is addressed to (for the most part) his friend, Eli, who shows up to participate in the shenanigans or debate finer spiritual matters along the way.
The book has something of a plot: Eli and Maloney frequent the Starlight diner. Maloney is in love with a woman named Tuesday, who no longer loves him but loves many others. Eventually she marries another acquaintance of Maloney’s, a man named Finger. Eli is a chess whiz, and Maloney takes him around the country, pulling down winnings to the consternation of Eli’s girlfriend, a 65-year-old-Asian woman named Nono. (All the King’s Men this decidedly ain’t.) A former lover of Tuesday, Dick Dickerson, kidnaps Tuesday and Eli, which prompts a violent but successful rescue attempt by Maloney with various compatriots.
Afterward they are on the run from the law for burning down Dickerson’s subdivision (though technically Dickerson started the fire). Eli and Maloney hit the road with Maloney’s new lover, Darling, who is pregnant with his child. They travel to New York, pursued by Nono and a blind headhunter named Jack Cataract. The whole adventure ends in gunfire and childbirth in the head of the Statue of Liberty.
If the spectrum of contemporary American literature spans from swampy historical fiction, where the atrocities of the first half of the 20th century are yet again exploited for dramatic benefit, to the hyper-educated faux-memoir of urban professionals, where anxiety is the primary antagonist, Bible’s book is something else entirely. It’s a mixture of Raising Arizona, Waiting for Godot, and bong doxology. In other words: a whole bunch of fun.
However there are some problems inherent in this type of novel. The first is that cut free from any kind of organizing principle, be it plot or semblance to reality or a linear notion of time, the book exists solely on the genius of its prose. And though Bible often does well here—“The Holy Ghost licks me head to toe. I want to ask her questions but I’m mute with pleasure. There are doves flying out of my heart in figure eights”—it’s a difficult feat to maintain. Much of the verbal energy comes not from the sentences themselves but from their juxtaposition in brief paragraphs. How much weird outlandish detail can he position within the span of half a page? Quite a bit it turns out.
I’ve formed a little band called Roy G. Biv. It’s a noise band kind of thing with a man who just stands nude, a girl on trombone with unshaven legs, and a man with a bullhorn named Finger. We are on the bandstand at the bar after a bluegrass act and there are shouts of hate and we love the hate. The main purpose of the band is to be despised.
But if a verbally brilliant brand of funny is what a book needs to succeed, it’s in danger of starving itself via its own escalating diet of outlandishness. If you overshoot funny, you end up in the swamp of wackiness, which some people find amusing, but I do not. (Remember: Walker Percy.) To me, wackiness is humor that’s lost its sense of form. Each joke must fester around a splinter of truth, a splinter of not-joking. This danger is the single largest risk associated with the rise of someone like George Saunders, who’s genuinely funny, but who is also probably the most imitated American short story writer currently working (and himself a kind of guru-sequel to another Syracuse, NY–based, much-imitated literary icon, Raymond Carver).
A second related hazard with this type of book is that since it’s essentially plotless—or to be more precise, since its plot has no basis in any kind of restrictions—there is no need for the novel to ever end. Bible’s book is 120 pages long but it could have been 40 or 400. The book itself is simply an accumulation of verbal riffs, many of which are entertaining and humorous, some of which advance the plot, such as it is, some of which are intellectually provocative, and some of which don’t quite cohere. It’s more of a compendium than a coherent unit of meaning. That’s not necessarily a bad thing but it leaves the book searching for its own inner logic, its own formal reason to exist.
This manifests itself in the ending when Cataract and Nono arrive in Manhattan, and the book turns into a literal human game of chess, with the different sides deploying different New York characters. (Ex: “They move a bipolar girl in overalls to Little Italy. Darling takes a runaway and Cataract’s in check.”) One doesn’t want to fault the book for a lack of realism at this point; it’s never been realistic, which is again fine. But it has suddenly been taken over by an overt concept, which removes the grit and humor from the first 90 percent of the book.
Finally, to be completely honest, though it’s an enjoyable read, I have no idea what it all means by the end. The best exegesis of the book comes in an early paragraph, where Maloney expresses the desire to be a saint:
I’m a holy fool on the hunt for something worthy. I chase the saints of all religions and long to join their team. They call me the Right Reverend Alvis T. Maloney but things are becoming unstable in the Goldilocks zone. Dusk is a bonfire of wild sunflowers and across the night an archer aims his bow. That which has been is that which shall be. It’s Sunday morning in America. Twenty-first century. Year of the Dragon.
Among its many riffs, the book is peppered with mini histories of saints’ martyrdoms: “St. Anne is bound with chains to the stake by her ankles, knees, waist, chest, and neck. She is burned slowly. She does not scream.”
In Rome thirty-nine saints are forced into a freezing lake but after three days they still show signs of life. Unable to be killed by freezing, they are burned, their ashes thrown into the air.
What’s the point of these saint stories, you say, Eli.
I’m trying to find a way to die with honor.
How ’bout trying to live with honor?
One thing at a time, I say. One thing at a time.
Maloney is trying to find a way to become a saint when there no longer seems to be a rationale for sainthood, and when no one is paying attention enough to care.
The signs of everlasting life are all around us but I don’t have the right eyes. Gods are dreaming up new stuff to baffle everyone and the snakes in the grasses smell with their tongues. I am stretching myself toward the streetlamps that fill the empty heavens. The news isn’t even news anymore. People work and work and work for tiny numbers in the clouds. The ditch digging will never end and the thin, sad girls of the East Village all live in Brooklyn now. Eli, there is nowhere to preach the gospel, no gospel left to preach. No sun I can see. Nowhere left to lose my mind in peace.
I wish people still smoked cigarettes, you say, Eli.
Yeah. But not like they used to.
In the end, Maloney succeeds, as everyone dies at the hands of mistaken unbelievers. But the symmetry enacted here between Maloney’s preoccupations and the thrust of the narrative doesn’t add up to enough. It’s aesthetically convenient, but it doesn’t feel emotionally or intellectually meaningful. “That which has been is that which shall be,” Maloney says, but this leaves us with a novel that’s recycling a novel we might have read before, an update in the Hannah tradition, but to what end, ultimately? Life was better way back when the cigarettes and the alcohol and the risks were stronger: how is this anything but a conservative vision? Standing athwart the river of history yelling stop, and all that. It’s strange to find the bones of an old person’s sensibility hidden inside this novel’s outward youthful exuberance.
When I was in graduate school (a thoroughly Percyite activity), there was an annual folk arts festival where, in addition to the local crafters and watercolorists, there was always a contingent of outsider artists. Much of this art was religious in nature and nontraditional in format and medium. (Think of a Day-Glo rooster crowing the word “Jesus” painted onto a rusty fragment of corrugated tin.) One year some art department students appropriated this style and exhibited their own work at the festival. This learned outsider art was just as legitimate, perhaps even superior to, the original outsider art, we students argued to our professor.
“Maybe so,” he said. “But those students don’t talk to God.”
Bible—whose name is probably too good to be true—doesn’t quite talk to God yet, but he’s hearing voices.
Contributing editor Barrett Hathcock is the author of The Portable Son, a collection of stories. He lives in Jackson, Mississippi.
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