Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Airships, by Barry Hannah

Barry Hannah's Airships (Knopf, 1978) bowled me over. These stories offer a remarkable alternative to the clean, precise, antiseptic short fiction that has proliferated since the 1970s in American letters. The typical Hannah story rambles. You often think it's going nowhere, or that it's lost track of where it was going, and then suddenly you realize it's right on target. Hannah’s typical persona is a middle- to lower-class Southern white man, possessed of the usual prejudices one would expect from rural areas of the 1960s and 70s. Hannah pays no homage to political niceties. His characters pretend not to be fond of black people, of Northerners, or of other people unlike themselves. It takes getting over.

Hannah's stories are the opposite of minimalist. They give the illusion of formlessness, of stream of consciousness, but although the unconscious may be a source of the stories, they are quite deliberate.

In subject these stories range from short brutal tales about murder (“Coming Close to Donna” and “Pete Resists the Man of His Old Room”) to Civil War stories somehow involving Gen. Jeb Stuart (“Knowing He Was Not My Kind Yet I Followed” and “Dragged Fighting from his Tomb”) to World War II stories (“Testimony of Pilot”) to Vietnam stories (“Midnight and I’m Not Famous Yet”) to apocalyptic science fiction (“Eating Wife and Friends”). Rarely have I read a story collection so varied in content. “Escape to Newark” is about a futuristic world so polluted and depleted of resources that everything is dying. Only the rich can afford to build rocket ships to escape. A woman abandons her husband to secure a place on a spaceship built by a former friend who selects his passengers much as he might choose whom to invite to a swank party. The conclusion is sudden and unexpected and entirely fitting. In “Water Liars” old men sit around fishing and telling stories to each other that are lies but that also dredge up deeper truths. In “Our Secret Home” a man who lives with his wife and disabled twin sister discovers why neighbors decline to attend his parties. “Return to Return” is about a brain-damaged former tennis champion and his admirers (it reminding me in ways of Philip Roth’s American Pastoral).

These narratives intermix contemporary America with traditional America, the modern with the postmodern, the real with the unreal. They deal with hillbillies, the era of Civil Rights, the problems of the modern world. They offer no solutions and even their diagnoses are typically unclear and not even to the point. Faulkner is an occasional echoing presence, but so too are Updike and Cheever and Roth.

Many of these stories seem told by characters whose own grip on reality is uncertain—psychopaths, hallucinators, the half-aware, the dispossessed, the grievously embittered and disappointed. They inhabit a world in which the real and unreal commingle, not in the way of the magical realists, but more in the way of trailer parks and starvation and Kafka.

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