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There is ammunition enough to say it plainly: Barry Hannah is one of the two or three most exciting craftsmen of fiction in the country. John Updike once observed that Vladimir Nabokov wrote ecstatically. So does Hannah. But where Nabokov proceeded from the aloof yet florid perspective of the peep-show partisan, a wry and intelligent sensibility given to trench coats and voyeurism, Hannah crashes the stage demanding satisfaction. With Nabokov, there is a feeling of watching and wanting from a torturous distance. Hannah gets in close. His prose is less eloquent but more committed, less studied but more alive, equally inventive but more disturbing. Nabokov provides an appropriate contrast, because Hannah is not, as some have argued, from the shock-them-raw school of writing. No, he is as refined as it getseven his vulgarity comes across with an elevating exuberance. In his latest collection of short stories, High Lonesome, Hannah has earned the highest regard a writer can hope to obtain. He has written 13 stories that prove his prose to be sui generis.
It is true: Hannah seems to have skipped out entirely on Harold Bloom’s famous syndrome, the anxiety of influence. Perhaps this is because Hannah is so anxious about experience itself. Faulkner, Conrad, Joyce, or Beckett have not taken hold of Hannah’s imagination nearly as much as the homicidal grocery clerk around the corner or the dazzling coed who jogs past his porch each evening.
Take, for example, his description of a character named Sunballs in the story “Get Some Young.” It brings to mind no other author. Instead it brings to mind, in startling fashion, the enigmatic Sunballs. “All of him the color of putty almost, as your eyes rose. The clothes vaporish like bus exhaust. The fingers whiter in the air like a potter’s but he had no work and you knew this instantly. He held a red net sack for oranges, empty. It was not known why he had an interesting name like Sunballs. You would guess the one who had named him was the cleverer. Nothing in him vouched for parts solar. More perhaps of a star gray and dead or old bait or of a sex organ on the drowned. Hair thicket of red rust on gray atop him.”
Such hallucinatory angles of perceptionand the correspondingly esoteric prosebespeak a witness who has been fairly overwhelmed with vision. Hannah is like a man touched by Godall the old ways of seeing the world have been burned out of him, and now everything is so fresh and bright that he scrambles about trying to fashion a new language in order to do justice to what he observes.
Even when he encounters general sorriness, the insights are riveting. The narrator of “Get Some Young” notes of two lunkheads: “They had an unfortunate disease where you saw everything the minute you saw them, the awful feckless waiting, the lack of promise, the bulk of despair.” Or this description of a creep in “Through Sunset Into the Raccoon Night”: “His body looked to me like something foul and bought, a meat suit.” Part of what makes Hannah’s prose so delectable is that it is driven by poetic, not prosaic, imperatives. Perfect words and phrases are at a premium, and they are often found by blending an archaic tone and an arch use of language with a full-tilt, cutting-edge sensibility. The result is highly concentrated, but it is also wildly humorous. In “Carriba” there is a boy who is “not only neckless but nigh to growing another face across.” A waiter named Wartly in “Taste Like a Sword” tends to a table occupied by two men who serve him heaping portions of scorn: “We are sworn to bring the message home to you, Wartly. We do wish we could see your dreams. Most waiters are waiting until a better thing turns up. But you, Wartly, seem already promoted beyond your talents.”
Wartly takes it, becoming positively moony over the cruel tormentors: “This man speaking is courtly, of the world. Even his rich tie looks born for him, his shoes are loving animals gathered to his feet. When I brought him more tea, the meal had not tired him at all. He says, Our old pale old Wartly. Why are you alive? Could it be that anyone would find you necessary? We’ve figured you as a walking breathing missing person but nobody searching for you.” Hannah is a deluxe writer, possessed of a craftsmanship especially suited for the person who has read and read and become a little jaded. If you don’t believe anything new or interesting can be done with the English language that does not involve forays into the most obtuse or sophomoric experimentation, Hannah will make you a believer. People are forever yawping about someone who has written something that is supposed to be jazz and poetry and electricity, etc., all rolled into one. You read three lines, then convulse with a yawn. You read Hannah and think perhaps those overblown descriptions are not as far-fetched as you thought.
It is in the short story that Hannah’s intensity finds its true home. Last October, the New York Times Magazine asked him if he thought there was any hope for the short story in a world dominated by movies and novels. “Most of the novels I come across have all the excitement of a long trip on a Greyhound bus with a sensitive glee club. Yammer and chat. Today’s readers of the short story, and writers, are cultish, like early Christians. They can feel quicker and deeper. They don’t require vulgar volumes to bestir themselves,” Hannah replied. As a statement of Hannah’s sensibility, that cannot be improved upon. He is about the task of impacting the reader with all the force of a novel in just 10 or so pages.
Detractors have noted limitations. Hannah’s work, it is argued, does not always possess the completeness of other short-story masters. Compared to Peter Taylor, Raymond Carver, or Flannery O’Connor, his narratives appear diffuse. Those writers’ stories, at first glance, seem to be real stories, while Hannah’s work may strike one as the inspired ranting of a gloriously rarified consciousness. Good stuff, but too richyou get a great high from it, but like when you stuff yourself with chocolate, after the sugar wears off what are you left with?
Regarding the stories in Hannah’s first collection, Airships, right up to Bats Out of Hell a few years back and now High Lonesome, the answer is, quite a lot. Hannah has always been in hot pursuit of the revelatory moment, and the fact is, the revelatory moment well drawn out is nourishing indeed. Hannah’s counterpart in film would be David Lynch, an auteur given to elliptical storytelling by way of illuminatingin his better filmskey and provocative moments that reveal instances of evil and of grace.
Hannah’s reputation is also afflicted by the problem that some readers have been so taken by the wonderful prose that they have failed to perceive the intricate narrative structure on which Hannah’s preternatural sentences glide and careen. His stories are driven forward not by chronology but by the narrator’s compulsionsthey dart here and there, often to stories within the larger story or to emotional points of interest that captivate the narrator. From this intensely subjective view, a larger story unfolds, and when it does, it is always something of a surprise, because the reader suddenly realizes he has swallowed two stories with the effort for one. The first narrative track charts the narrator’s psychological and spiritual terrain. The second concerns the larger world in which the character lives.
The narrator of “Through Sunset Into the Raccoon Night” says, “Through me runs an inveterate refractoriness, almost a will to lose.” No doubt the condition is painful, but when it comes to crafting stories that approach the essence of what it is like to be alive and to contemplate one’s life, that refractoriness is a blessing, not a burden. Hannah has been smart enough to let it influence the structure as well as the language of his stories. Another Hannah hallmark is his covetousness of the complexity and nuances of life. In this he exhibits that laudable Southern contempt for ideologyhe is wary of those who would foist airtight worldviews upon us. This is not to suggest that he believes we live in a permeable world where we may do just as we like, but Hannah is fiercely on guard against simple reductions, right, left, and center.
One of the finest stories in the collection, “Carriba,” is a vindication of this understanding and a well-deserved slap on the wrist to journalistic hubris. Hannah was asked by a national glossy magazine to cover a murder that had occurred on the Gulf coast, but he found the white-trash hash the magazine sought a cruel and inaccurate caricature of what had actually occurred. Hannah wanted no part of itunless it could be rendered, powerfully and with dignity, as fiction, as “Carriba.” In an increasingly ideological world where people of every imaginable persuasion happily display the whole of their take on life on their rear bumper, Hannah is bound to cause trouble.
For instance, Hannah’s favorite obsessions, this time around, are women, sex, aging, creeps, and Christianity. It produces in “Snerd and Niggero” this: “She met him with a luxury stroke of her cunny and pulled him way out of his depth so Snerd was almost anxious as with his waist jerked down a well, but safe, his balls would not go further…” In “Through Sunset Into the Raccoon Night,” this: “Elton, the creep, came in with the best-looking woman I had ever seen anywhere. He was unchanged, slumping, holding his mouth like a stunned halibut’s, less than zero to say. Nobody had ever known where, under what cold bricks he lived. He was always just abruptly there, parachuted it seemedthat suddenout of some greasy, ghastly aerial pollution, face like the cunt of a possum. But the woman, why, she was with him and not vomiting, not vomiting at all.”
And at the conclusion of the same story, this: “Yet the very few graceful, profound, and bewildering words of Our Saviour do get through to me more and more, so different from this loser’s, lost like a two-headed snake in jabber at itself, condemned to my own story like somebody already in an Italian hell. I am slow, I am windy. I have so little vision, engaged in this discourtesy of length and interminable excuse, but seeing bits of light here and there ahead.”
One can only hope this ungainly Christian will continue to afflict readers with discourtesythe lengthier, the better. CP