Barry Hannah Essay - Critical Essays

Barry Hannah Short Fiction Analysis

Barry Hannah is among the most prominent southern writers of the post World War II period and has been widely praised for producing some of the finest fiction about the South since the work of William Faulkner. Characterized by a surrealistic style and surprising narrative twists, his stories often depict violent and/or sexual situations that oscillate between the bleak and the hilarious.

Hannah was especially interested in depicting a generation of southern men scarred by the Vietnam War, a conflict which repeated the Civil War’s pattern of loss and defeat but which was also the harbinger of both a crisis in masculinity and a general social unraveling. His largely male characters consistently suffer from physical or emotional pain and cannot escape the destructive patterns in which they find themselves and for which they are, in part, responsible. These stories of disintegration and fragmentation are seen as representative of the difficulties of life in a post-Vietnam America. However, Hannah’s jazzy, meandering style and his absurdist sense of humor add rich dimensions of comedy and tragedy that cannot be communicated by simply delineating his narratives, which often consist of a series of chaotic subplots and digressions.

Hannah’s distinctive style, which strikes the reader as both manic and depressive, is perfectly suited to the inner lives of his characters, whose emotional weather ranges from a sense of absurd comedy to feelings of anxiety that leave them on the brink of suicide and despair. His capacity to write associatively, as if his stories are as much dreams as histories, also allowed him to develop a unique stream-of-consciousness approach to narrative that is faithful to the strange and intense inner world of his male characters. Notable also are his arresting story titles, which often sum up the themes of his stories.

Airships

This first collection by Hannah established both his major themes and his unique style. The theme of war is prominent: “Testimony of Pilot” not only explores the deranging effects of the Vietnam War on a former combatant but also shows the demoralizing impact of the war on those who watched from the sidelines. “Midnight and I’m Not Famous Yet” depicts a civilian who is touched by the troubles of a friend who served in the Vietnam War. In this narrative, Hannah deliberately blurs the distinction between the Civil War and the Vietnam War—in each case life begins to lose its purpose or meaning. This story and “Knowing He Was Not My Kind Yet I Followed” also feature Confederate General Jeb Stuart, who figures centrally in four of the twenty stories in this collection as both hero and fool.

Other stories are set in contemporary times—“Love Too Long” and “Constant Pain in Tuscaloosa” depict deserted husbands who cannot let go of their former wives. “Coming Close to Donna” is about a woman whose obsessional sexuality leads to murderous behavior on the part of the men in her life, and “Our Secret Home” is about a man who is sexually obsessed with his mentally impaired sister. One of his most famous stories, “Water Liars,” shows a group of fishermen who enjoy...

(The entire section is 1305 words.)