It’s a tough choice but if you had to choose, which ones? Why?
Hannah’s 1978 collection Airships, Barry Hannah sets stories from the northern front of the Civil War, to an apocalyptic future, to the Vietnam War, to odd pockets of the late-20th century South. Feels somehow like an elliptical, fragmentary novel. Maybe it’s the thematically related “pursuit of horror” that pervades the collection.
In “Escape to Newark,” the environment is wildly out of balance—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 wins in the end.
“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.”
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 sad and hilarious.
“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.
Your Dad, Crabfood”
Although Hannah explores dark gaps of the soul in Airships, he also finds there a shining kernel of love in the face of waste, depravity, violence, and indifference.
“I live in so many centuries. Everybody is still alive.”
This slim 1980 novel is a strange wonder. Don’t expect a narrative arc. Hannah breaks almost every convention, right down to a first-person narration that shifts occasionally into a kind of second-person meditation and then into a faux-objective third-person voice and then into the third-person free indirect style that marks modernism. The subject Ray careens not just through perspectives but also through time.
One of the central episodes in Ray stands as a virtual paradigm for the entire novel. Sister Hooch, a daughter of an impoverished couple and passionate lover of Ray himself, struggles to achieve fame through her singing.
But almost as soon as she finally has her hit record and earns for herself some ease, the local Baptist minister kills her. Death is close at hand, familiar, unexpected, inevitable.
Ray lives in constant awareness and defiance of death. Ray’s lust for life—for sex, pleasure, and happiness—affirms life and, at least momentarily, cheats death.
3. Geronimo Rex
Geronimo Rex reads with the breathless intensity of a skydiver’s plummet to earth. Published in 1972, the story was Hannah’s first novel, and was nominated for a National Book Award in 1973. It tells the scattered but hilarious tale of young Harry Monroe as he tries to navigate the raunchy and troubled swirl of his adolescence in Dream of Pines, Louisiana during the 1960s. Hannah’s first-person account of a bigoted yet big-hearted youth trying to make sense of the changes sweeping over a South besotted by its own flawed conception of self.
The story begins with young Harry Monroe watching the Dream of Pines marching band practice on the football field. Hannah’s prose approaches something resembling religious fervor when he writes about music:
First time they hit the field at an early September football game, it was celestial – a blue marching orchestra dropped out of the blue stars. The spectators just couldn’t imagine this big and fine a noise. They were so good the football teams hesitated to follow them; the players trickled out late to the second half, not believing they were good enough to step on the same turf that the Dream of Pines band had stepped on. The whites living on the border of the mills heard it, and it was so spectacular to the ear, emanating from near the colored high school, they thought it must be evil. I mean this was a band that played Sousa marches and made the sky bang together … the fact probably was, by what I saw and heard that afternoon hiding under the bleachers at the colored football field, Dream of Pines was the best high school band in at least the world … They made you want to pick up a rifle and just get killed somewhere.
The stories in Bats Out of Hell provide a brilliant, dazzling odyssey into American life. Wild in range and in the portrayal of the human heart, these stories are vintage Hannah. They give us individuals in whom hilarity and pain combine with true and startling clarity.
In an interview in The Paris Review in 2004, Hannah, was forthright about his writerly heresies, if not his shortcomings: “I hate editing. I love to write, but I hate to reread my stuff. To revise.”
Revised or not, in each of these stories Mr. Hannah unrepentantly swings from the heels, and many of the opening lines of Long, Last, Happy: New and Collected Stories are home runs:
“In the alleys there were sighs and derisions and the slide of dice in the brick dust.” from “Behold the Husband in His Perfect Agony”
“Wright’s father, a sportswriter and a hack and a shill for the university’s team, was sitting next to Milton, who was actually blind but nevertheless a rabid fan, and Loomis Orange, the dwarf who was one of the team’s managers.” from “Fans”
“I was after the presence of all time in one moment,” Mr. Hannah told The Paris Review. “I was trying to skip logic, trying to make time and place and space move quickly. Real quickly.” He was referring to Ray, but he could also be talking about his stories.
Just so, in these stories Hannah evokes an astonishing depth and range of emotion, as he economically blends notes of wistfulness and nostalgia into the dark, complex moods of his resonant, often disturbing tales.