Airships by Barry Hannah – A Review

Barry Hannah
Grove Press, (Original publishing date) 1978, pg 209

Barry Hannah was a master of a certain style of American short story, one that prizes a discontinuity of humor and the absurd over more common modes of the perfectly wrought short story as in his contemporaries, such as Carver. Certainly there is an echo of an America that you can find in Carver, but for Hannah every story is an opportunity for a joke or a black humor that is suspicious of everything. In Hannah you seldom find a character that you can, in that most tiresome of literary criteria, relate to, nor do they seem to live in a world that you might recognize. What you see are stories that live at a distance from everyday experience, and form, instead,  fables and allegories of hubris and overreach that collapse in surreal plots and finds characters performing outrageous acts. At times it is funny, but there is also a distance in the stories that once the joke is understood leaves them flat, the reader saying, “oh, I get it.” The danger with absurd humor is that distancing, a phenomenon where there are no stakes left for the reader but a kind of smugness. This is not a case for a moralistic fiction, but the humor in Hannah has an attitude that just laughs without really providing much ambiguity.

Despite these faults, his stories are so well written with their American literary vernacular that passages of his work are a marvel to read. He can capture an image of a life in a brief paragraph that makes the whole story seem alive. Take this example from Deaf and Dumb

She had a certain smile that would have bought her the world had the avenue of regard been wide enough for her. They loved it at the Bargain Barn. But the town was one where beauty walked the walks as a matter of course, and her smile was soon forgotten by clerk and hurried lecher on the oily parking lot. She never had any talent for gay chatter. She could only talk in brief phrases close on the truth. How much is this? Is this washable? This won’t do, it’s ugly.

It perfectly captures a down on her luck woman who doesn’t have much luck with men. I should mention Deaf and Dumb is one of the few stories that doesn’t feel completely jokey. There is a real sense of a human inhabiting that woman. Even when a story fails to be alive, Hannah can still create paragraphs like those that can make one think this story is going to dazzle. Unfortunately, all too often a story will turn into something like Quo Vidas, Smut. For me this was the worst story of the bunch, one that meandered amongst a fugitive tale, then to a kind of rural pastoral, to surreal when a jet takes off from a farm field, ultimately finish with sex. It is here with when his surrealism fails, and his literary jokes, referencing other stories that have touched all these themes seriously, fall flat.

One of Hannah’s preoccupations is the Civil War, and more specifically, Jeb Stuart, the dashing carvery general and martyr to the cause. Something about Stuart didn’t sit right with Hannah and in one story he has a character take credit for killing the General. The irony here is the man who killed him was first a confederate soldier who loved to kill and later, when he joins the Union side, does he kill him, finding as he looks back as an old veteran that the Confederate veterans don’t want to have anything to do with him. It is an interesting story because, one, it deflates one of the sacred generals of the south, and, two, it plays with the idea of legend. As the veteran tries to take claim for the killing it could well have been him, but he finds you can’t be the hero to both sides. And if it was him, that truly was brother on brother in a way that doesn’t fit the sanctified cliches of a hundred year-old war. In Knowing He Was Not My Kind Yet I Followed, a gay soldier relates his encounter with Stuart one night. He tries to proposition him, which the general refuses, but does not otherwise notice. At the same time there is a slave who won’t shake the soldier’s hand, Stuart chastises him then hugs him as if they were lovers. Again, the general, the Christian defender of the Confederacy is satirized by treating a slave as some sort of equal and lover.

One of the better stories is Testimony of Pilot. Testimony of Pilot is a Vietnam era piece that seems cold, narrating the life story of two friends, one who joins the air force and the other, the narrator, who lives his life as an ex drummer gone deaf from too much rock and roll. Between them is a woman Lillian, a stewardess. The pilot is cold and lives his life fr the war participating in mission after mission. He won’t even kiss Lillian when he lands at an airfield just to see her (a scene that is straight out of a movie). None of them come to a good end and there is no reason for it, either. As is common in Hannah, the narrative isn’t the most important element. He works his stories to serve the humor, which often doesn’t leave room for a more character based reason. Character driven stories are not required, but when Lillian dies in a crash it is off handed, as if the fun is showing how pointless these lives have been. In small doses it works to great effect, but in a collection full of these kind of elements, it can get a little off putting.

Barry Hannah was certainly a good writer and I’m curious to see what stories published a decade later, perhaps in the 80s, would be like. The humor, often rooted in a 70s sensibility, is just too unfunny to make this collection a stand out. There are great elements to it, but the flaws just overwhelm them.