This is a book that John Clute, in proselytic mood back in 1991, dubbed "one of the great American novels". Neal Barrett is proud of this, Mojo Press is proud likewise, and their pride is largely justified. The Hereafter Gang is the eloquently fantastic postmortem of a shiftless, lyrical, and erotically obsessive modern Texan's life; it allies the innate bizarreness of Southwestern urban existence with the most nostalgic regression the afterlife might offer, in an astonishing cocktail of the disarmingly mundane and the outrageously absurd. If not a great American novel, The Hereafter Gang is certainly a great essay in magic realism, a great Fantasy, a great Texan novel. To have it available in paperback is a blessing long overdue.
At some point in the text--we can never be certain exactly when--Doug Hoover makes the transition to Death. For much of his story, then, Hoover may be leading the final days or hours of a desolately strange life in Houston, or touring the foothills of Elysium. The afterlife is a continuation of our mortal existence in Barrett's scheme, as in many others; and a good deal of the novel's folksy eerieness stems from this association of stages of being, this crafty blurring of planes.
The Hereafter Gang opens with a dream of raw death and raw sexuality, and this interplay of apparent opposites dominates from there. Although he is work-shy, forever uncertain of his proper niche, and always unhappy with what he currently has (wives, homes, jobs), Hoover possesses vast vitality. He is in his mid-fifties, but thanks to a long-maintained habit of immersing himself in God's good soil (with the wise exception of his head), he seems twenty years younger, a case of premature burial turning out well, perhaps. His great goal is not wealth and success but rather massive serial copulation, and he never wants for girlfriends; so if anyone is truly alive, it is Doug Hoover. But he has pains in his chest; he is dying, destined ineluctably for the land of shades; and he continually sees the phantoms of Wild West gunfighters and Imperial German fighter pilots of the Von Richtofen stamp, his childhood heroes acting like his fetches, beckoning him to join them in death. He must obey, even if unwittingly; and when a beautiful Lolita joins the psychopomps, he takes the bait, and heads Heavenwards along Texas' endless highways.
Of course, because Hoover's psychological state (not to mention his precise spiritual location) is at any given time somewhat uncertain, it may be that his prolonged youthfulness and amorous facility are exaggerations, fond fancies of a mind deteriorating along with its body. Who can say? What can be said is that Barrett's descriptions of episodes in Hoover's life--his childhood with his fathers and uncles, his hobbyist obsessions as a child, his sexual initiation at eleven, his high school friendships and intrigues, his sundry unsuccessful marriages and careers, his horrified contemplation of his final mother-in-law and how his last wife may come to resemble her, his adulterous intrigues--are superb: hilarious, pungent, perfectly observed. Barrett's prose, always effective, rises to masterfully evocative poetry in The Hereafter Gang, fully equal to its task of the intimate and total representation of a human soul in all its sinfulness, joy, perversity, and yearning. And with that soul truly captured in his words, Barrett depicts its posthumous fate with fine humorous nostalgia.
Oklahoma was Hoover's home in his happiest boyhood; for him Heaven must be a reversion to that place and time, and so his crossing of Texas's state border with Oklahoma is his definitive entry into the hereafter. He finds much comfort there among the familiar sights, sounds, odours, pastimes, routines, and dalliances of home; the gunfighters and Teutonic air aces are in chummy attendance, as is Sue Jean, his Lolita figure: his hereafter gang indeed. How Barrett resolves this problematic state of self-indulgence, how he imparts some existential rigour to what might amount simply to infantile regression, is a further fascination of The Hereafter Gang, not to be spoiled here. Suffice it to say that an unsatisfactory life need not segue into an unsatisfactory death, that Paradise has its demanding moral imperatives.
The Hereafter Gang is its author's undoubted masterpiece, the climax of the Barrett oeuvre. As one of the great eschatological fictions, it demands to be read; and once that compulsive reading begins, it will not stop, even at the boundary between Life and Death.
(Order from Mojo Press, P. O. Box 1215, Dripping Springs, Texas 78620, USA; or visit www.mojo.com)
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© Nick Gevers 29 July 2000