Themes and Meanings
“In Mississippi, it is difficult to achieve a vista.” This line, delivered early in the story, proves doubly important. First, it underscores the strong southernness of Barry Hannah’s fiction, its links to a particular region and culture and to certain of the South’s most important writers: Edgar Allan Poe, Mark Twain, William Faulkner, and Flannery O’Connor. Second, the line underscores the story’s concern with how well one sees and how one is seen. How well one sees is highlighted in the opening pages in the number of times the narrator as a boy of ten or so manages to misjudge the small world that makes up his rather limited vista. How one is perceived proves especially significant in the case of the story’s titular subject, with his Arab nose, white halo, and odd name. Although Quadberry’s inspired saxophone playing represents the school’s best hope for winning the state championship, it also represents, at least to Howly, a “desperate oralness” that neither he, nor Lilian, nor the small, red-faced, ninth-grade boy can satisfy. That Ard is, or may be, homosexual only compounds his difficulty in trying to find a place either in his small Mississippi town or in the aggressively male world of Annapolis and navy pilots during the Vietnam War.
When he goes to Annapolis, he begins the process that will take him from playing the saxophone to flying fighter aircraft, from soloist and musical genius to the no less intense but certainly more deadly isolation of a plane’s cockpit. In the sky, he achieves the widest vista possible and the greatest distance from all that is merely human. Howly moves in a parallel but opposite direction. Just as Ard must give up his saxophone because of his bad back, Howly must give up his drums because of his deafness. Howly’s deafness, however, brings him closer to people, including Edith Field, Lilian’s younger sister, “a second-rate version of her and a wayward overcompensating nymphomaniac.” With Howly, she finds what Ard, with his chronic sneer and Arab nose up in the air, and the haughty Lilian never do, a measure of happiness, some relief for her desperate loneliness. In Hannah’s world of odd characters, freakish accidents, and thwarted lives, the moral seems to be that less is often more.