New and Selected Stories
By Barry Hannah
Grove. 464 pp. $27.50 nolead ends nolead begins
Reviewed by Andrew Ervin
Barry Hannah's posthumous collection of stories, Long, Last, Happy, is large enough to use as a doorstop and incendiary enough to burn a rain-soaked barn to the ground. Hannah died last year at 67, but only after a long career of marking a sizable territory for himself within the world of Southern literature.
He was the author of 13 story collections and novels, the first of which, Geronimo Rex, was nominated for the National Book Award and won the William Faulkner Prize. He would go on to win many more awards, including a Guggenheim and the PEN/Malamud. As Long, Happy, Last makes clear, his best writing often was in his short stories.
Hannah's stories are crude, irascible, indecent, and sometimes offensive, but I'm sure they have some bad qualities, too. The 31 tales here span his entire career, beginning in 1964 and including four new ones. The book comes across more like a boxed-set anthology than a greatest-hits collection. Unless you are, for example, getting paid to review it, you may jump around and skip the stories that don't grab your attention. No shame in that.
But even the less-than-superb work here has some interesting - and frequently disquieting - things to say. But I've come to praise Barry Hannah, not bury him (again), so I'd like to tell you about the best stories contained herein.
At his best, Hannah wrote like a man held at gunpoint by the devil himself. Stories such as "Drummer Down," "Bats Out of Hell Division," and the early "Sick Soldier at Your Door" read like classics, or like epics reconfigured for our own troubled times. They are redolent of the oral storytelling tradition.
"Fans" is set on "the morning of the big game in Oxford, Mississippi," and it looks at the emotional underbelly of sports fanaticism. The trouble begins in the opening paragraph: "The bar was out of their brand of beer, and they were a little drunk, though they had come to that hard place together where there seemed nothing, absolutely nothing to say." Wright, to the chagrin of his father, is talking yet again about his friendship with the team's star player, Jet, who was guilty of some horrendous off-the-field actions. These fans' own unfulfilled dreams linger in the margins of these pages.
"Midnight and I'm Not Famous Yet" is set in Vietnam during the war. A young man has become strangely obsessed with a photograph of a golfer taken by a compatriot. "Here we shot each other up. All we had going was the pursuit of horror. I had never had time to be but two things, a giggler and a killer." Such coming-of-age dichotomies turn up in a number of these stories.
"High-Water Railers" features a circle of elderly men who hang out at a fishing pier, where they tell the same stories they've shared with one another for years. Sidney Farte and the rest of these guys are as real as you and me. Hannah's greatest gift was his talent for capturing voices, but much of what's said here cannot be quoted in a family-friendly newspaper. Their uneasy peace is broken by the arrival of Melanie, the widow of one of their friends: "Something was always suspended when she came around. A sort of startled gentility set in, unbearable, to Farte, like sudden envelopment by a church."
Hannah's similes are perfect throughout. A kid's grandfather looks at him "like I was a crab who could say a couple of words." Some people killed in an explosion are "like flesh sparklers over the water just out of Cuba." A lovely woman in "Testimony of Pilot" looks "like something that hung around New Orleans and kneaded your heart to death with her feet."
Many themes pop up again and again. These characters are growing up in the South, making music, dropping out of college, losing their vision, fighting in Vietnam. Some stories are so unusual - in content and in structure - that they read as if Hannah simply jotted down the tall tales and twice-told stories picked up at every juke joint and fishing hole and crossroads between Tuscaloosa and Little Rock, but that does not in anyway undermine the intense literary craftiness at work.
Like Faulkner before him, Hannah dedicated himself to perpetuating a kind of down-home mythology. In the two years I spent in Louisiana - not in Angola, I should add, but close - I saw just enough to undermine all my unfortunate Yankee prejudices about the South. OK - most of them. Many of Hannah's characters are unapologetic racists and homophobes, and while they come across as equally believable and unlikable, they also reflect only one tiny segment of the population down there. The South that Hannah describes - and by many accounts fully embodied - is one that may be passing into history and legend. Not everyone will be sad to see it go.