Barry Hannah reading “All the Old Harkening Faces at the Rail” (from Airships) and talking about memory and voice at his home in Oxford, Mississippi in February, 1986.
I had ordered Antoine Volodine’s Minor Angels through my favorite bookstore, and it came in yesterday. It’s slim but expensive (ah! university presses!) and ate up all of my store credit, but still I picked up used copies of Robert Coover’s second novel The Universal Baseball Association, Inc., J. Henry Waugh, Prop. and Barry Hannah’s Boomerang b/w Never Die (some of the only Hannah I’ve yet to read). I was tempted also by the title and cover of Daniel Hoffman’s 1971 Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe—but I was not tempted enough to acquire it.
Between the first Sunday of September 2015 and the first Sunday of September 2016 I ran a series of posts—every Sunday that year—I called “Three Books.” I would scan the covers of the books, and I generally tried to find books with interesting design elements to them; I would also try to find a thread between the books (but not always). The posts allowed me to write about the design and aesthetics of covers, as well as other elements of the books (y’know, like, what was actually between the covers). The posts also gave me a regular goal on a Sunday. After a year, I moved on to another series of Sunday posts I called Sunday Comics; before the Three Books thing, I posted pics of my bookshelves on Sundays and wrote about that; and before that, I posted images of death masks on Sundays. A themed post of some kind every Sunday seemed to give this accursed blog a sense of direction, however false. I don’t remember how or why I quit posting Sunday comics, but searching the tag shows me I stopped at the end of June in 2017. This whole paragraph seems like a long and rambling preamble to saying something like, Maybe I should do these Blog about posts on Sundays? Huh? What do you think?
But the title said “Three Books”…so—Three Books, chosen somewhat at random:
Captain Maximus by Barry Hannah. First edition hardback by Knopf, 1985. Cover design by Fred Marcellino.
Last summer I visited Alias East Books East in Los Angeles, where, along with sometime-Biblioklept contributor Ryan Chang, I fondly fondled a signed first edition of Barry Hannah’s novel Ray. I couldn’t bring myself to pay sixty dollars for it, but one night, after a few drinks, broke down and bid on eBay for a signed Hannah—Captain Maximus. I wound up paying six dollars more than what Knopf wanted to charge folks for an unsigned edition back in ’85. This particular copy clearly has never been read. I ended up picking up the Penguin Contemporary Classics paperback version of Captain Maximus (for three dollars of used bookstore credit) and reading that instead. The signed Hannah’s spine is still pristine, and I realize that I am something awful.
The book is purple.
The Heart of a Dog by Mikhail Bulgakov. English translation by Michael Kenny. First edition hardback, Harcourt, Brace, & World, 1968. Design by Applebaum & Curtis Inc.
The book is purple-pink.
The World within the Word by William H. Gass. Trade paperback by Basic Books. Cover design by Rick Pracher.
Just a wonderful collection of essays. His essay on Stein is required reading, and “Carrots, Noses, Snow, Rose, Roses” is perfect metafiction posing as criticism. Lovely stuff.
The book is pink.
“Pull Back and Reload: Barry Hannah in Hollywood,” a wonderful article by Will Stephenson, is new this week in Oxford American. The article focuses on Hannah’s time in Hollywood in the early 1980s, trying to develop a movie script called Power and Light with Robert Altman. Altman, (not-so-)fresh from making cult jam Popeye, was enchanted by Hannah’s 1980 novel Ray. The director invited Hannah to stay in his Malibu home to work on a script:
Hannah had driven out to Hollywood proudly on his Triumph motorcycle, he and Altman having settled on a meeting place, whereupon Altman was to guide him the rest of the way to his home in Malibu. But when Altman arrived, Hannah hadn’t showed. The filmmaker waited for an hour, increasingly frustrated, until he noticed, across the street, a peep show and adult video store. As Rapp remembers him putting it, Altman thought to himself, “That fucker would be just crazy enough . . .” He wandered inside the adult emporium and there found Hannah, deeply absorbed.
The article is pretty great, larded with nuggets from Hannah’s correspondence and not a few wild anecdotes. Check it out.
I first started getting a tad—just a tad—nervous about Hurricane Irma on Monday, September 4th. This was Labor Day. I had the day off from work, and it was a good day: beer, barbecue, swimming. Etc. Hurricane Irma was already enormous, a monstropolous beast for the record books looming in the Atlantic to eat up our beloved Florida.
I was still reading Barry Hannah’s last novel Yonder Stands Your Orphan that day; I’d finish it up a few days later. It was excellent, full of great sentences, vignettes, riffs, rants, etc. I’d say it unraveled at the end but “unravel” implies a cohesiveness that maybe isn’t quite there—I’d have to read it again to see, and it’s worth a reread. Actually, in a sense, it coheres in that it collects a number of Hannah’s former characters into a picaresque of grotesque misadventures, hung loosely on a pimp-pornographer-outcast named Man Mortimer. Man Mortimer is the closest thing to a hero the novel has, and he’s pretty evil. Let me crib from an actual review; from Christopher Tayler’s 2001 write-up in the 2001 LRB:
The plot, such as it is, revolves around the depredations of a demonic big-city outsider called Man Mortimer, ‘a gambler, a liaison for stolen cars and a runner of whores, including three Vicksburg housewives’. Mortimer starts to take an interest in cutting people when he finds out that his sort-of girlfriend, Dee Allison – a single mother, nurse and ‘nun of apathy’ – has been unfaithful to him. Dee’s feral twin sons, meanwhile, find in a dried-up sinkhole a car containing the skeletons of Mortimer’s former lover and her child; they clean the skeletons up and take to carting them round the woods. Mortimer is initially concerned with avenging himself on Dee and reclaiming the evidence, but he soon graduates to fairly random attacks on all who cross his path – all, that is, except the poisonous Sidney Farté, who is delighted when Mortimer chops his father’s head off and replaces it with a football, since this speeds his inheritance of the family bait store.
Yonder Stands Your Orphan is often surreal and always dark; it often reminded me of David Lynch’s crime stories, with their grotesque gangsters and abject phantoms. Hell, there’s even a character named Frank Booth.
But where was I? Sorry. This riff is in part a way for me to collect the past few days into something coherent, to figure out what day it is, to prevent an unraveling. Yes, I was nervous on Labor Day, a tad. I had made a list at the beginning of that weekend of five items, chores, I mean, of which I’d accomplished four, including Clean gutters and roof. I did not complete the item I had listed as Hurricane audit.
I picked up a few flats of bottled water before my first class on Tuesday, September 5th. The shelves were already looking bare. I stopped by a Walmart and then a Lowe’s on the way home, failing to get a second gas can. Other people were starting to get a tad nervous. (Nervousness spreads like an infection).
By September 6th, it was nigh impossible to buy a generator in Jacksonville or any of its satellite cities. The college where I teach closed on Thursday, September 7th; my kids’ school closed. Everything started shutting down. There were lots of texts and calls between friends and family, basically amounting to, Should I stay or should I go? Back up plans, hotel reservations to hopefully cancel, etc.
I managed to get a generator on September 8th, which I’d crank up two days later. At this point it seemed clear, or relatively clear, that we were staying, and that family from Tampa Bay would be staying with us. September 8th was long: Trimming back suspicious branches, securing loose items from around the house’s perimeter, busting up an old playhouse that my kids really didn’t play on any more. Cooking meals that could be reheated on a grill. Rehashing plans, piling up supplies. Etc.
I finally got tired of listening to the radio (scaring the hell out of me) during this hurricane prep, and picked up the audiobook of Arkady and Boris Strugatsky’s Roadside Picnic, translated by Olena Bormashenko, and read by Robert Forster. I basically listened to each chapter twice over the next few days. The translation is inspiring—witty and raw, noir and smart, and Robert Forster’s narration is perfect—wry, dry, sad, and profound. I need to rewatch Tarkovsky’s Stalker now. I’m a bit ashamed that I haven’t read this one before, and I found its final moments especially moving (exhausted as I was). Highly recommended.
My evacuees arrived early September 9th. The next few days are a soggy blur. A nor’easter saturated northeast Florida; the St. Johns River was already, like, full, and the peninsula I live on (a peninsula on a peninsula), was loose. Like, not firm. Irma’s big bands started hitting the First Coast with a frank sincerity. We watched the local NFL team beat Houston’s team. There’s no symbolism or irony there. I was alternating vodka with coffee with green tea. Two twin pines lord over my house, one in the back, one in the front, maybe five decades old. They swayed and swayed, pelting fresh green pine cones onto the roof for the next 24 hours or so with an admirable consistency. By 10pm Sunday night I realized that I wouldn’t be able to sleep. We lost electrical power, put the kids to bed. Branches started coming down, thudding with scary force, kick drums for the pine cones’ tight snare raps. Limbs like something heavier, thick bass notes. How did the kids sleep through it all?
By candlelight, I read the first 66 pages of João Gilberto Noll’s novella Atlantic Hotel (English translation by Adam Morris) at some point that night. Atlantic Hotel is a picaresque nightmare, one weird horror turning into another. In a way, it was perfect reading for Irma’s approach, ominous and eerie. I also don’t know how much I registered, as I kept going out in the hard wind and slanted thick rain to put a big flashlight on my backyard, where the water kept creeping up and up, eventually getting too high for my gumboot but thankfully never spilling into my house. The feeling of reading Atlantic Hotel registered—the tone, the mood, the rhythm—but not the plot or the anonymous lead character. I’ll have to hit Reset on it.
By 3:00am the brunt of the storm cascaded over my own personal house (yes); the pine cones hailed down in a rhythm like hard rain, punctuated by larger crashes of pine limbs and other debris. For unreasonable reasons I will never know, I pulled out Keats and read Lamia with a bigass flashlight. The storm band somewhat subsided; I rested my eyes for an hour or two, then the whole thing commenced again. By nine in the morning it seemed the worst of the storm had passed, and I slept. Lamia snaked into my dreams, coiled into Irma. My son woke me up at 10:30am—a house down the street was on fire. Some asshole had cranked his generator in his garage—his closed garage!—next to his gas cans and propane tank and car. The garage burned; the car exploded, along with the other car in the driveway.
That Sunday, September 11th saw historic flooding in the urban core of Jacksonville. My kids’ school, about a third of a mile from my house, flooded. While trudging around in the late afternoon in our gumboots, happy to be free of our sweltering house for a bit, we saw two teams of Army Rangers paddle up a canal, onto the street, there to evacuate stranded old folks. Surreal. Word traveled about other locations underwater—a flooded Publix, a ruined boatyard, Memorial Park a lake. The worst rumor, to me anyway, was that my beloved used bookstore, Chamblin Bookmine, was underwater. I still can’t bring myself to go over there. I know where it is and how high the water got.
These past few days, I listened to my favorite audiobook during much of the cleanup—Richard Poe’s recording of Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian. What a strange awful comfort. A tree fell on my carport and shed, but they held, sorta. My lawn is a stinking mess, the blazing sun pulling out the water in humid reeking waves. The squelch of it all is something damn else. The pine trees dropped plenty of enormous limbs, but none did real damage. Up on the roof yesterday, clearing one off, I shuddered at its size and weight. I shuddered because of course It could have been so much worse. I’m thankful.
Raymond suddenly knew it was time to return to the bad restaurant and then his ache for visions would be satisfied. The bad restaurant would stay when only zombies prevailed. It served food for the dead, tired fishermen and humble vacationers worsened the instant they sat down and had the bad water. Thousands like it at state lines, watering holes in the great western deserts, far flung Idaho and Maine. Their owners say, “We just couldn’t help it, we were food people. We never said good food people.”
Raymond was in the pawnshop looking at a delightful saxophone and about to buy it when the feeling hit him. What he would see and be transformed by was right next door to his own cottage, not out in the fars, the wides, the bars or churches. He put the saxophone down and within seconds saw a shadow past the shop. It was a man hobbling and slurring of the few words he could manage, and Raymond was positive it was Mimi’s old ex, what was left of him after the suicide attempt in Vicksburg, rolling and pitching up Market and the pawns to find Raymond. He went out to the walk and saw nothing but a red car leaving. And he followed it in his own. Mimi it was in Miami singing with another band for a couple of weeks. He was alone. He knew this was right. He had not eaten for two days, for no good reason. The moment was pressing.
A zombie had just waited on him in the pawnshop, a man who stood there remarking on the history of this saxophone. In apparently good health, in decent clothes and well groomed, polite, but quite obviously dead and led by someone beyond. You could look at them and know they are spaces ahead into othernewss. Not at all adolescent either, that natural Teutonic drifting or the sullenness without content. They might still be people, but unlikely.
Everything about the zombie is ravaged except his obsessions, thought Raymond, following the red car. Dead to every other touch. They simply imitate when there is movement or sound. They imitate the conversations around them to seem human to one another. He had seen them in scores from the airports to the bandstands imitating one another, mimicking the next mimicker in no time, no space, no place, no history.
The bad restaurant even had bad-food loungers and loiterers, hard to shake when they got a good imitation of you going. The restaurant with its RESTAURANT sign. Its mimicking of the dining life, yet no edible food, bad water and a weak tea to go with that. Refill that beige for you, sir? Every dish served in contempt for what used to be human. Rations for an unannounced war.
From Barry Hannah’s 2001 novel Yonder Stands Your Orphan
“Most animals live a short while,” said Ulrich, “but I had a revelation. That we cannot know the intensity of their lives, which is hundreds of times more attuned than ours. They don’t talk because they don’t need speech. A dog, when it puts its head out a car window, smells almost everything in a county, a world we never even suspect and have no description for. That is why I am daft. I have flown and smelled the smells, Carl Bob. I have known life by my nose. That’s why the dog looks so ecstatic sniffing in the wind. They smell a thousand times more than we do. We could only know it as hallucinatory sense. Dogs are in space and time. We can only know one or the other, plodding, toddling. Not to mention hearing. And taste. Water is fifty times more delicious to them. We must not pity them, a cheap passive hobby. They live huge lives before they die. Watch how happy sleep is to them, and right next to waking. They live both at once. We are predators not only of meat but of essence, my friend. We want to be them because they have spoken to us without speaking and we can hardly bear their superiority.”
From Barry Hannah’s 2001 novel Yonder Stands Your Orphan.
The sheriff was doing a five-minute commentary on the Weekend Review on television Saturday night. Both Dee and Melanie watched.
“The world is full of middle-aged men who seek revenge. The anger passes for most when they see there is no way. The rate of incarceration is very low for first-time offenders of sixty. For some, there is a bigger engine of hate even then, running at the red line and very vigilant toward what they might consider insults or even bossiness. They aren’t just having it, the engine, like the others. They are it. They have not been aware of this, and their acts confound them. Those are ones you see on television or in the newspapers discussing sodomy, rape, kidnapping and murder in the passive voice, something happened, somebody was killed and so on, sometimes even giggling. ‘Mistakes were made, yes, when she was killed. I can’t remember, really.’ Such as that.”
From Barry Hannah’s 2001 novel Yonder Stands Your Orphan.
Last night at one of his homes, the big fifties-ranch-style one, he had watched on his large flat screen Phillips television the film clips and recitation of a minister. A curious breed of faith, perhaps not even Christian.
“Why do people look for science, science fiction and signs of the End? Why do they seek the Revelation of the Apocalypse here and there and chant the old chants of the coming Antichrist, the Four Horsemen? Science fiction has already been had, fools. It was the Battle of Kursk, German tanks against Russian tanks, fifty-seven years ago. It was Leningrad, Stalingrad, Moscow, Berlin, idiots! What does it take, a sock in the jaw for you to get it that the Forces of Darkness fought then? The Antichrist on both sides. Piss on Star Wars. Nothing touches WW Two for science fiction and wasteland.
From Barry Hannah’s 2001 novel Yonder Stands Your Orphan.
Ulrich had been quiet, painting on deck varnish. Now he spoke. “We don’t love each other as much as we used to. You can see the uncertain looks, the calculations, the dismissals. People are not even in the present moment. Everybody’s been futurized. You look in those eyes and see they’re not home, they’re some hours ahead at least. I hate to go into Vicksburg anymore. Anywhere, really. It’s all like meeting people who have just departed. Old men and women don’t look wise anymore. They are just aged children. And who gets the highest pay? Actors. Paid to mimic life because there is no life. You look at everybody and maybe they’re a little sad, some of ’em. They’re all homesick for when they were real.” Ulrich began painting again as the others tried to guess what could have prompted this.
From Barry Hannah’s 2001 novel Yonder Stands Your Orphan.
Earlier this summer I visited Alias East Books East in Los Angeles, where the clerk kindly let me handle a signed first edition of Barry Hannah’s novel Ray. It was like sixty bucks, so I didn’t handle it too fondly. But somehow the image of the signature rattled around in my silly skull all summer—probably because I spent a big chunk of July slurping up Long, Last, Happy. I wanted to find out some info about Hannah’s last quartet of stories—the last four stories in L, L, H—and doing a search of his name in Twitter led me to a link for a signed first-edition hardback copy of his slim 1985 collection Captain Maximus. (The title is a joke on his then-editor, Gordon “Captain Fiction” Lish, who apparently Hannah referred to as “Captain Minimus” in some of their letters). I might have had a scotch or two, but I bid on the book (eighteen bucks). No one else bid on it, so it’s mine now.
The cover is lovely, purple and orange, designed by Fred Marcellino, and under the bright shiny jacket is this:
I love the reserved arrogance of those initials!
And of course the signature, dated five years after the book’s publication and geographically anchored to the town my grandfather and namesake attended college in—
I didn’t actually own a copy of Captain Maximus beforehand, and I think the only stories from it included in Long, Last, Happy (which, by the way is a great starting place for Hannah) are “Fans,” “Ride, Fly, Penetrate, Loiter” and “Even Greenland” (you can read “Even Greenland” at Ben Marcus’s website). This particular copy has clearly never been read. Which leads me to this afternoon. I went to my favorite used bookstore to pick up a copy of Ishmael Reed’s The Terrible Threes—I just finished The Terrible Twos, a novel that is too prescient and too funny and too cruel and you should read it read it read it—and well anyway, I went to see if maybe they had a copy of Yonder Stands Your Orphan, which they didn’t the last time I was there, but they did today. Under it was a well-thumbed 1986 Penguin paperback edition of Captain Maximus. I need to read Yonder (which hell by the way my god what a bad cover c’mon people) before I can write the Thing I want to write on the final stories in Long, Last, Happy (or at least I think I need to read it, or anyway, I want to). And the second copy of Captain Maximus, at three dollars in store credit, is something I don’t have to worry about cramming into a pocket or dropping into a bathtub or eventually giving away to a friend.
The fact is I wanted to write long before I had anything to say. I don’t find this condition at all unusual in young writers, good or bad. A sort of attuned restlessness. Often it is simply an overriding need to talk. A sort of transcribed logorrhea, worse than decent gossip. I’ve taught these people, forever blasting away in wretched detail, solidly in love with their own noise. I must say, I was never infatuated with my own voice. It was the ideal inner voices that took me, and they came from everywhere, especially Hemingway, Joyce, Henry Miller, and later, Flannery O’Connor. Like many Mississippians, I shied away from Faulkner, who was at once remote and right there in your own backyard, the powerful resident alien. Having read a little of him, I sensed I would be overcome by him, and had a dread, in fact, that he might be the last word. That I would wind up a pining third-rate echo, like many another Southerner. Then T.S. Eliot, especially “Prufrock.” But the earliest great howler who made me want to make the team was the badly forgotten Dylan Thomas, whose voice seemed available everywhere in English departments in the ’50s and ’60s. It seemed to me a fine thing to get drunk and just start being Welsh and crowing surrealism, as I perceived it. Put that against the sullen bitchery of Holden Caulfield, which charmed almost everybody my age, and you would be cooking. Miles Davis might one day shake your hand. He was God, and that would be very nice.
tooThe Nobel laureate William Faulkner died in the hot July preceding the September riots. It was good he didn’t have to watch. He was a racial moderate, read nigger lover in these parts then, and left much of his estate to the United Negro College Fund. I mention him only to place this story on the map and call to memory, now I’m an old man, that not all of us were rot. I did understand much of Faulkner’s greatest books. Personally I disliked him as a snob who with no effort at all could have been kinder to the neighbors in the village we were then. He was passing strange and spiteful to many. You had to reckon with some conceit as birthright, which made him contemptuous of the very humble folk he was celebrated for taking to his heart on the page. You will often see pure words and a great wash of self-atonement, no people necessary to them.
From one of Barry Hannah’s last short stories, “Lastword, Deputy James.” Published posthumously in the collection Long, Last, Happy, the story (often evocative of Cormac McCarthy, at least to me), along with the others in the last section of the collection, reads like part of a perhaps-unfinished novel, one that answers seriously to Southern history in a way that Hannah’s earlier work obliquely evades.
William Faulkner died 6 July 1962. He dropped out of the University of Mississippi–Ole Miss—as a young man, just like my grandfather.
The Ole Miss riot of 1962, sometimes styled “the Battle of Oxford,” began the night of 30 September 1962. The riots–a battle really—were the result of racist segregationists’ opposition to the James Meredith’s enrollment in the university. Meredith, a black man, served in the U.S. Air Force from 1951-1960. He graduated from Ole Miss on 18 August 1963, earning a bachelor’s degree in political science.
In his 1978 collection Airships, Barry Hannah sets stories in disparate milieux, from the northern front of the Civil War, to an apocalyptic future, to the Vietnam War, to strange pockets of the late-twentieth century South. Despite the shifts in time and place, Airships is one of those collections of short stories that feels somehow like an elliptical, fragmentary novel. There are the stories that correspond directly to each other — the opener “Water Liars,” for instance, features (presumably, anyway), the same group of old men as “All the Old Harkening Faces at the Rail.” The old men love to crony up, gossip, tell tall tales. An outsider spoils the fun in “Water Liars” by telling a truth more terrible than any lie; in “Harkening,” an old man shows off his new (much younger) bride. These stories are perhaps the simplest in the collection, the homiest, anyway, or at least the most “normal” (whatever that means), yet they are both girded by a strange darkness, both humorous and violent, that informs all of Airships.
We find that humor and violence in an outstanding trio of Civil War stories (or, more accurately, stories set during the Civil War). The narrator of “Dragged Fighting from His Tomb,” a Confederate infantryman relates a tale of heroic slaughter with a hypberbolic, phallic force. Observe—
I knew the blueboys thought they had me down and were about ready to come in. I was in that position at Chancelorsville. There should be about six fools, I thought. I made the repeater, I killed four, and the other two limped off. Some histrionic plumehead was raising his saber up and down on the top of a pyramid of crossties. I shot him just for fun. Then I brought up another repeater and sprayed the yard.
Later, the narrator defects, switches to the Union, and claims he kills Jeb Stuart, a figure that towers over the Civil War tales. The narrator of “Dragged Fighting” hates Stuart; the narrator of “Knowing He Was Not My Kind Yet I Followed” is literally in love with the General. In contrast to the narrator of “Dragged Fighting,” the speaker in “Knowing” — an avowed “sissy” whom the other soldiers openly detest — hates the violence and madness of war—
We’re too far from home. We are not defending our beloved Dixie anymore. We’re just bandits and maniacal. The gleam in the men’s eyes tells this. Everyone is getting crazier on the craziness of being simply too far from home for decent return. It is like Ruth in the alien corn, or a troop of men given wings over the terrain they cherished and taken by the wind to trees they do not know.
He despairs when he learns of Jeb Stuart’s death. In the final Civil War story, “Behold the Husband in His Perfect Agony,” a Union spy is given the task to communicate news of Stuart’s death through enemy lines. Rather than offering further explication, let me instead point you, dear reader, to more of Hannah’s beautiful prose, of which I have not remarked upon nearly enough. From “Behold the Husband” —
Isaacs False Corn, the Indian, the spy, saw Edison, the Negro, the contact, on the column of an inn. His coat was made of stitched newspapers. Near his bare feet, two dogs failed earnestly at mating. Pigeons snatched at the pieces of things in the rushing gutter. The rains had been hard.
The short, descriptive passage rests on my ears like a poem. Hannah, who worked with Gordon Lish, evinces in his writing again and again that great editor’s mantra that writing is putting one sentence after another.
Although set in the Vietnam War, “Midnight and I’m not Famous Yet” seems an extension of the Civil War stories. In it, an officer from a small Southern town goes slowly crazy from all the killing, yet, like the narrator of “Dragged Fighting,” he presents himself as a warrior. Above all though, he laments that the war has robbed him of some key, intermediary phase of his late youth, a phase he can’t even name—
The tears were out of my jaws then. Here we shot each other up. All we had going was the pursuit of horror. It seemed to me my life had gone straight from teen-age giggling to horror. I had never had time to be but two things, a giggler and a killer.
This ironic sense of a “pursuit of horror” pervades Airships, particularly in the collection’s most apocalyptic visions. “Eating Wife and Friends” posits an America where food shortages and material scarcity leads people to eating leaves and grass — and then each other. In “Escape to Newark,” the environment is wildly out of balance—
In August it’s a hundred fifty degrees. In December it’s minus twenty-five and three feet of snow in Mississippi. In April the big trees explode.
A plan is made to “escape” these conditions via a rocket, but of course there’s not enough fuel to get past Newark. In Airships, modes of flight are transcendent but ultimately transient. Gravity’s pull is heavy stuff.
Just as Hannah’s war stories are not really war stories, his apocalypse tales are really about human relationships, which he draws in humor, pathos, and dark cynicism. In “Green Gets It,” an old man repeatedly attempts his suicide, only to fail again and again. His suicide note, written to his daughter, is scathing and shocking and sad and hilarious and wise–
My Beloved Daughter,
Thanks to you for being one of the few who never blamed me for your petty, cheerless and malign personality. But perhaps you were too busy being awful to ever think of the cause. I hear you take self-defense classes now. Don’t you understand nobody could take anything from you without leaving you richer? If I thought rape would change you, I’d hire a randy cad myself. I leave a few dollars to your husband. Bother him about them and suffer the curse of this old pair of eyes spying blind at the minnows in the Hudson.
Although Hannah explores the darkest gaps of the soul in Airships, he also finds there a shining kernel of love in the face of waste, depravity, violence, and indifference. This love evinces most strongly perhaps in Airships trio of long stories. These tales, which hover around 30 pages, feel positively epic set against the other stories in the collection, which tend to clock in between five and ten pages. The first long story, “Testimony of Pilot,” details the development of a boyhood friendship over a few decades. It captures the strange affections and rivalries and unnameable bonds and distances that connect and disconnect any two close friends. The second of the long tales is “Return to Return,” a tragicomic Southern drama in the Oedipal vein (with plenty of tennis and alcoholism to boot). As in “Testimony of Pilot,” Hannah finds some measure of redemption, or at least solace, for his characters in their loving friendship, yet nothing could be more unsentimental. The final long story, which closes the collection, is “Mother Rooney Unscrolls the Hurt,” a daring work of stream of consciousness that seems to both respond to — and revise — Katherine Anne Porter’s “The Jilting of Granny Weatherall.” The story concludes (and of course concludes the volume) with a vision of love that corresponds to the imagery of The Pietà, a kind of selflessness that ironically confirms the self as an entity that exists in relation to the pain of others.
I could keep writing of course — I’ve barely touched on Hannah’s surrealism, a comic weirdness that I’ve never seen elsewhere; it is Hannahesque, I suppose. Nor have I detailed Hannah’s evocations of regular working class folk, fighting and drinking and divorcing and raising children (not necessarily in that order). Airships is a world too rich and fertile to unpack in just one review, and I’ve already been blathering too long, I fear, when what I really want to do is just outright implore you, kind reader, to find it and start reading it immediately. Very highly recommended.
[Editorial note: Biblioklept published a version of this review on March 20th, 2011. I am currently listening to the audiobook of the Hannah omnibus Long, Last, Happy, and just finished the first section, which contains most of Airships. The audiobook is good, but I wish it was Hannah reading it himself.]
Airships by Barry Hannah. 1994 trade paperback by Grove Press. Cover design by Rick Pracher. The cover painting is Chrysanthemum by Hannah’s contemporary, the photorealist painter Glennray Tutor. Hannah wrote an essay about Tutor’s work called “Deep Pop,” declaring
Once one’s amazement at the astonishing precision in the paintings of Glennray Tutor has had time to sink in, the opportunity arises to contemplate the visual eloquence in his depictions of the small artifacts of life, and how such compositions can say profound things about the nature of our existence.
Ray by Barry Hannah. 1994 trade paperback by Grove Press. Cover design by Rick Pracher. The cover painting is the center panel of Glennray Tutor’s triptych Whistling Moon Traveler. I reviewed Ray on this blog the same year I reviewed Airships.
Bats out of Hell by Barry Hannah. 1994 trade paperback by Grove Press. Cover design by Rick Pracher. The cover painting is the left panel of Glennray Tutor’s triptych Dragon Boat. I did not review Bats out of Hell, but some of the sketches contained therein appear in Hey Jack!, which I did review.
WT: Do you read magazines?
BH: If someone would rave about a story in the New Yorker, I’ll read it. But you get a lot of that Woody Allen–New Yorker–Hamptons fiction. My [students] have to send off to the little magazines. I get the sense that only grad students read those.
WT: Writer’s writers?
BH: I don’t like that term, because I wouldn’t buy somebody’s album on a dare if they called him a musician’s musician. I don’t write to be a writer’s writer. I don’t want to be like the little-magazine writer. I don’t want to be that.
Categories are bad news. Being Southern will just kill you sometimes. It’s not always a graceful adjective. Sometimes it means, don’t bother because it’s gonna be [sings a lick from dueling banjos]. It’s gonna be: porch, banjo, Negroes. There’s a canned dream of the South that a lot of people get into, and I’ve resisted that stuff my entire so-called career. Ready-made Southernism just disgusts me, just makes me nauseated. I mean, you can’t see a movie without hearing that goddamned slide guitar. Shit, I’m just so tired of it.
From Barry Hannah’s interview with Wells Tower in The Believer.