Style and Technique

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

The one exception to the less-is-more rule is the narrator’s style. The aptly named William Howly is a latter-day Huck Finn, although older, wiser, and better educated, who, instead of lighting out for the Territory, has settled into the relative comfort of a job as lead writer at a Jackson advertising agency. The story is told in the vernacular and follows a more or less straightforward chronological line. The delivery may be deadpan but the phrasings are often startling: hyperbolic, comically grotesque, the matter-of-fact rendered with a manic touch of southern gothicism. Ard’s “ugly ocher Chrysler,” for example, “was a failed, gay experimental shade from the Chrysler people.” Syntax is at times decidedly and comically colloquial (“I didn’t know but what he was having a seizure”). The narrative often swerves from one scene to another; one section, for example, ends, “Now Quadberry’s back was really hurt. He was out of this war and all wars for good,” and the next begins, “Lilian, the stewardess, was killed in a crash.”

Hannah’s art is one of stark juxtapositions rather than intricate designs, an art of extravagant verbal effects and broad, cartoonlike strokes rather than the careful building up of realistic detail. It is an art in which comic antics are deployed to keep despair at least momentarily at bay, and in which finely tuned psychological motivation plays a less important role than raw emotional force. “Testimony of Pilot” thus resembles Quadberry’s playing, which combines technical brilliance with sudden transcendence: “desperate oralness” and a private ecstasy, dignified because of what came out of his horn. The story follows essentially the same dramatic idea that the Bop Fiends do—to “release Quadberry on a very soft sweet ballad right in the middle of a long ear-piercing run of rock-and-roll tunes”—and achieves precisely the same result, astonishing its audience with its tenderness.