Not literally tales about airplanes, the “airships” of Barry Hannah’s collection of twenty dazzling stories are vehicles to transport our imagination. And what strange, fragile vehicles they are! Mostly grotesque, they hurtle into life a cargo of tormented souls, nearly all at their breaking points, yet defiantly passionate. Hannah’s range is as remarkable as his penetration. From Vietnam to Mississippi, from the Civil War Confederacy to modern suburbia, his characters experience life at the narrow verge between disaster and redemption. A few of them attain a partial salvation; most are destined to fail, though they battle with stubborn pride.
Hannah’s characters do not suffer from the pride of the Greeks, hubris — excessive confidence in their powers. On the contrary, they usually lack confidence. As the world judges them, most are failures: disappointed lovers, betrayed soldiers, futile dreamers. Yet they take full responsibility for their lives and never complain at the defeats they suffer. In their integrity they demonstrate their pride. “There’s only tomorrow if you’re lucky,” says the old man in “Dragged Fighting from His Tomb”; many of Hannah’s characters might repeat the same sentiment. Without delusions, usually without moral rationalizations, they face life squarely and accept reality with calm; and like the greatest tragic heroes of the Greeks, they are proud to be human.
In their tragic power, Hannah’s stories remind the reader at times of the work of two other gifted Southern writers, William Faulkner and Flannery O’Connor. Like Faulkner, Hannah is interested in violence, not for the sake of sensation alone but for the psychological and artistic effects of terror. Many of Hannah’s stories begin or end in fearsome violence. For example, in “Green Gets It,” the psychotic narrator shoots a black man on a bicycle. “At least,” he says, “I had the presence of mind not to kill him. I only shot him in the thigh.” In “Quo Vadis, Smut?” a group of redneck hunters run down a cretinous farmer who had tied “his supposed sweetheart” to a bull, then strike a pitchfork in the animal’s eye. In “Coming Close to Donna,” the narrator, a self-styled “sissy,” witnesses a battle to the death in a cemetery between two rival lovers of Donna, the nymphomanic; when she calls upon the horrified “fag” to have sex with her, he picks up a tombstone and crushes her head with it. These examples and many others that could be cited show how Hannah’s treatment of violence seems almost comically grotesque. Yet it is never gratuitous, and the comedy, also reminiscent of Faulkner, is part of the Mississippi “tall tale.” Like Faulkner’s farcical yarns about the Snopeses, Hannah’s broad comic sketches reveal characters who are both depraved and pitiable. We laugh at their madness, but the amusement is pained.
Further, in his treatment of the grotesque, Hannah resembles Flannery O’Connor. Like her, he creates a world of garrulous, compulsive, usually narrow-minded, and often dangerous types who barely glimpse a world of moral order that they cannot understand. For Hannah, the moral order is not precise — certainly not so precisely catholic; but it tantalizes his characters with its hint of reality. Without that hint, life could not be endured; yet the hint is only that, not a certainty. Good soldiers to the end for a cause that they only dimly perceive, Hannah’s characters fight their lonely battles with courage or desperation and never whimper.
For Hannah, the image of the loyal soldier is General Jeb Stuart, peerless Confederate cavalry officer. In two major stories, “Dragged Fighting from His Tomb” (probably the finest piece of this collection) and “Knowing He Was Not My Kind Yet I Followed,” Hannah re-creates the myth of Stuart’s death. Again, in “Behold the Husband in His Perfect Agony,” news of the death of Stuart has significance in the plot, although it is not central to the action. What does Stuart mean to Hannah? Certainly the figure represents the heroic age of the South: a Christian gentleman, charismatic leader in battle, masterful companion of men. But he appears to be more than a legacy of the old South — a memory part truth but a greater part myth. Hannah posits in Stuart the verities toward which other, weaker men and women merely aspire. Stuart knows who he is; he lives with conviction, dies with honor. Shot by his own trusted officer, Captain Howard, Stuart is the victim of...
(The entire section is 1841 words.)