Style and Technique

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

At the heart of Hannah’s style is a love for language: One of his principal characters is named Dr. Word. At times, this affection impels his prose to aspire to the condition of poetry. Even at these moments, the beauty wears a smile, and the occasional purple passage is touched by humor. When Levaster asks Wilbur Word how Vicksburg has changed, for example, the reply is “nothing explosive, kudzu and the usual erosion.” Hannah is a master of the lush, rhythmic southern idiom.

In addition to heightened language, Hannah’s narrative strategy is marked by surreal incidents and eccentric characters. “Return to Return” is episodic, and each section advances the plot line like the return of a serve prolongs a tennis match. In one section, Dr. Word is struck in his one good eye by a tennis ball intentionally and vindictively aimed by a tennis player outraged by Word’s loud support for French Edward; in the next section, Olive confesses in a letter to her son that his sports-mad father once tackled a player during a high-school football game he was hired to referee. In rapid succession, Hannah serves the reader one wacky incident after another.

Each section is also peopled by characters whose eccentricity is similar to the comically grotesque denizens of the fiction of Flannery O’Connor, the modern American writer to whom Hannah is most often compared.

Even the minor characters are memorable. These include the phlegm-hacking, fish-colored South African tennis star Whitney Humble, who plays against Edward twice in the tale; the promiscuous, teenage runaway Carina, who shares Levaster’s New York apartment and thinks that Edward “looks like love”; and Edward’s large-nosed, big-breasted wife Cecilia Emile, who paints watercolors “so demure they resisted making an image against the retina.” Like doctors Levaster and Word, these minor characters also serve to define the protagonist French Edward through their confrontation with and reaction to his presence.

In the final analysis, Hannah celebrates survivors, no matter how unlikely. In a world that the narrator at times describes as “vicious” and “soilsome,” the act of making it from one day to the next is a cause for celebration.