Bats out of Hell

“Bats Out of Hell Division” is neither the first nor the last,the best nor the worst, the longest nor the shortest of the storiesin Barry Hannah’s latest collection of short fiction. It is,however, the title story and arguably the most representative ofHannah’s love of the bizarre rendered in a manic style andfollowing a wayward course which suggests that it is not fictionwhich has died, only plot. More often than not, the stories takethe form of high performance, grotesquely funny monologuesdelivered by narrators who seem to have stepped out of Poe andFaulkner by way of MAD MAGAZINE, holding benzedrine tablets in onehand and a Dixie beer in the other. In the title tale, forexample, a Confederate division is cut down to regimental size, thesurvivors similarly whittled away (shades of Poe’s satire “The ManThat Was Used Up”), yet these remnants of a remnant compel a Uniongeneral, improbably named Kosciusky, to surrender, dismayed by thesheer perversity of their charge and their playing of Tchaikovsky’s “Violin Concerto in D” scored for marching band.

Everything in Hannah’s fiction is odd to the point of lunacy,from the titles, (“Two Things, Dimly, Were Going at Each Other,” “Rat-Faced Auntie”), through opening lines that seem moreout-of-the-blue than in media res (“The old man off forty years ofmorphine was fascinated by guns,” “Or give it another try, like ahot Hollywood novelist,” “Hey, thanks, that one got us right in themoral, ho boys!”), and characters (“Sparky the future suicide,”Sidney Farte, the William Burroughs-ish Coots, Pusalina themanhating “vampire nun of Detroit,” and Arkansas hillbillyRoonswent Dover and his hitchhiking yarp) stricken with odddisabilities (like being “farhearinged” or contracting grofft) andfinally to outrageous revelations and even more outlandish,waywardly woven plots punctuated with the kind of humor that willmake the reader either giggle or gag: “The man began losing face.. . . The last time I saw him in a car windshield he was drivingwith nought but two deep eyeholes hanging on a slab of red wrinkledtissue.” But there is also a certain, if often deliberatelyunderplayed sadness to Hannah’s fiction, of the myth of Southernmachismo gone sour, of good ole boys locked in dead-end jobs, badmarriages, and all the wrong wars (from the Civil War throughVietnam to the Persian Gulf). Rabelaisian grotesquerie plays itspart in Hannah’s fiction, but so too does regret.