Some of my work on Updike was discussed on The Dish with Andrew Sullivan.
Some of my work on Ross Macdonald was discussed on Pretty Sinister Books.
Here is my interview with superstar music impresario Wendy Starland.
Here is my interview with Pulitzer Prize nominee Olympia Vernon.
Here is my interview with the editor of Best American Short Stories, Heidi Pitlor.
Here is my interview with acclaimed artist Emil Kazaz.
My musing on John D. Macdonald, Travis McGee, and the chicks was picked up on The Rap Sheet.

Airships by Barry Hannah

This is a column I wrote about Barry Hannah in The Bohemian Aesthetic in 2006/7.



Some experiences are said to be like no other; wholly unique; one of a kind.  Some things we might place in this category include visiting the Taj Mahal; actually being in the same room with Michaelangelo’s David; witnessing the birth of a child; bungee jumping.  To this list of once in a lifetime exposures you can pretty safely add reading the book of stories called Airships by Barry Hannah.  I kid you not – nothing will prepare you for it.  It’s virtually a genre unto itself, completely unlike anything you’re apt to read before or after.  Read this quote from the story “Water Liars” and see if your curiosity is piqued.  The scene: some good old boys are hanging out on a dock, swapping tall tales. 

“Worst time in my life,” said a new, younger man, maybe sixty but with the face of a man who had surrendered, “me and Woody was fishing.  Had a lantern.  It was about eleven.  We was catching a few fish but rowed on into that little cove over there near town.  We heard all these sounds, like they was ghosts.  We was scared.  We thought it might be the Yazoo hisself.  We know of some fellows the Yazoo had killed to death just from fright.  It was over the sounds of what was normal human sighin and moanin.  It was big unhuman sounds.  We just stood still in the boat.  Ain’t nothin else to do.  For thirty minutes.”
“An what as it?” said the old geezer, letting himself off the rail.
“We had a big flashlight.  There came this rustling in the brush and I beamed it over there.  The two of them makin the sounds get up with half they clothes on.  It was my own daughter Charlotte and an older guy I didn’t even know with a mustache.  My own daughter, and them sounds over the water scarin us like ghosts.”


Two quotes in particular may be very useful in understanding Hannah.  The first is from he himself, from an interview in The Mississippi Review from 1996: “Those that don’t advert their eyes are the real artists.”  This man most assuredly practices what he preaches!  The second comes from Adler and Van Doren’s How to Read a Book.  They counsel “…don’t criticize imaginative writing until you fully appreciate what the author has tried to make you experience.”  This is a paramount rule for reading Hannah, for dissecting and examining experience is what these stories are all about.  Readers looking for Big Themes, Major Statements, and Grand Pronouncements are going to be disappointed. 
            One of Hannah’s greatest strengths is the ability to get to the heart of very difficult feelings, very complicated emotions and desires.  He is often able to crystallize in a single sentence what it might take another a whole page to describe.  He is also able to mirror the rash, headlong character of life’s unexpected twists and turns by suddenly bringing a story, or an episode within a story, to a precipitate end, curt and merciless.  It’s a device analogous to bringing your car around a sharp turn and unexpectedly encountering as sudden dead end.
“Water Liars,” for instance, has as its final paragraph the single sentence:  “We were both crucified by the truth.”  In the very last breath of “Coming Close to Donna” we learn the narrator is a murderer.  The final paragraph of “Testimony of Pilot” is again a lone oration – “That is why I told this story and will never tell another.”

By the internal standards of lunacy of this collection, the three paragraphs quoted above are, on a scale of 1 to 10, about a 5.  (You’ll stare in disbelief at the first two paragraphs of “Quo Vadis, Smut?”, blink your eyes, re-read them, and pinch yourself to make sure you’re not dreaming.)    We can’t help but crack up at the way Hannah has this desperately inarticulate man tell his story, but at the same time we understand how the experience was painful and shocking for him.  Hannah constantly uses wild comedy – in some highly literary prose – to reveal the gaping open emotional wounds of his characters.  In the best of these tales people arrive at fragile, tentative avenues of empathy with each other because each has arrived at their own private sort of peace.  That empathy would otherwise be impossible.
This is exactly what happens in “Water Liars.”  The story is told (these are almost all first person narrations) by a gentleman who has recently learned that his wife had a number of lovers before they were married – indeed, before they even met.  The acquisition of this knowledge disturbs him greatly but he’s at a loss to understand the irrational stabs of jealousy (which he recognizes as irrational).  All he knows is that he has the feeling.  He says of the man who told the story in the excerpt above “You could see that he had never recovered from the thing he had told about,” and “We were kindred” and, finally, “We were both crucified by the truth.”  Notice – not Truth, capital T, but plain old ordinary truth, simple facts about loved ones.  This unites people, this recognition that others have come to terms with their truth, whether sad or joyful or painful or exhilarating.  Our internal software registers the recognition, almost like birds recognizing the plumage of the feathers of other birds.  I might not be so understanding of how you feel about hearing your daughter making wild love in the marshlands, screaming like the “Yazoo”, if I weren’t so distraught and upset myself about my wife’s ex lovers. 

Plenty of the stories here fall into two recognizable genres – war stories and stories about relationships.  Hannah is intensely concerned with both the Civil War and the Vietnam War.  The Civil War stories are all preoccupied wth Jeb Stuart, a well known Confederate general.  He appears in several.  In the best of these, “Dragged Fighting From His Tomb,” Hannah creates a near tour de force of the imagination, of literary art, and of historical storytelling.  As the story opens, Stuart makes a disastrous decision t raid a Union stronghold in Pennsylvania.  His army is destroyed.  The narrator of the story takes a bullet in the throat; as he waits to die his head is a “calm green church.”  In spite of the terrible mishap, he doesn’t die but in fact lives to assassinate Jeb Stuart in revenge, a horrible act of treason against the South.  We suddenly rocket forward thirty five years, in the kind of accelerator pedal move Hannah likes that I alluded to earlier.  The narrator is now in a home in Miami in 1900; someone recognizes him as Stuart’s killer.  The witness, telling the complete and total truth, is believed by no one.  The narrator observes, “The only friends of the human sort I have are the ghosts that I killed.  They speak when I am really drunk.”
On the domestic front, “Our Secret Home” really puts married life under the microscope, albeit with the trademark macabre Hannah twists.  A couple gives a party; the wife orders some horrible fish hors d’ oeuvres.  The husband remarks, “I looked over at the long table of uneaten fish tasties.  The heat had worked on them a couple more hours now and really brought them up to a really unacceptable sort of presence.”  In “Love Too Long” : “Nothing in the world really matters but you and your woman.  Friendship and politics go to hell.”  The story “Behold The Husband In His Perfect Agony” is from such a different vista of perspective I barely even know how to comment on it.  It has to be experienced for itself.
In my view this collection succeeds so greatly in part because it’s so unpredictable.  Even the three or four stories that misfire badly are interesting for this reason.  Hannah is the least formulaic writer imaginable (it’s interesting to note that Robert Altman once hired Hannah for the sort of writing that is the most formulaic of all, writing screenplays, and Hannah is said to have hated the work).  If you want to see how a really interesting, wholly original, different kind of mind looks at the world, this volume is certainly one way to do it.



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