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"To my mind, he was the most thrilling, vital stylist in American fiction."—Wells Tower
Barry Hannah was widely recognized as one of the masters of the American short story and his death in March 2010 brought writers and readers out of the woodwork to mourn an irrevocable loss to American letters. Now, combining the best of the four ...
"To my mind, he was the most thrilling, vital stylist in American fiction."—Wells Tower
Barry Hannah was widely recognized as one of the masters of the American short story and his death in March 2010 brought writers and readers out of the woodwork to mourn an irrevocable loss to American letters. Now, combining the best of the four story collections he published during his lifetime and the final manuscript he left behind, Long, Last, Happy will cement his legacy and serve as the definitive collection of his finest work in the story form.
From his first collection, Airships, Barry Hannah made the literary world sit up and take notice. His ferocious, glittering prose and sui generis worldview introduced readers to a literary New South—a fictional landscape that Vanity Fair Daily has summarized as covering "Women, God, lust, race, nature, gay Confederates, good old boys, bad old boys, guns, animals, fishing, fighting, cars, pestilence, surrealism, gritty realism, the future, and the past…tossed together in glorious juxtapositions."
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution called Hannah "the mendacity-battling colossus bestriding the cotton-growing, Wal-Mart-shopping, history-haunted states the rest of the country calls 'down there.'" The definitive collection of a giant of the American short story, and including never-seen new material, Long, Last, Happy confirms that Barry Hannah was one of the most brilliant voices of our time.
"In Mississippi it is difficult to achieve a vista," wrote the late laureate Hannah (Yonder Stands Your Orphan, 2001, etc.) of his native state. He was wrong: He provided some of the best vistas in American literature, as this collection of short fiction ably shows.
The early stories here, dating to the mid-1960s, show Hannah at his Faulknerian finest, writing small elegant tales in long sentences that loop and oxbow to rival Old Man River himself (a third of a representative sentence: "that is that part of his speech which I was able to hear persuaded me, for the jacking of the asses, the lament of the eunuchs, the cries of the lost, the general din of the vulgar in their ascent ahead were overpowering"). As the chronologically ordered collection progresses, the author's sentences become shorter and punchier, though no less poetic: "The dead sit around us in their great hats, nude, yammering away nevertheless." Hannah reveals early on a few recurring characters (the unfortunately named Farte family, for instance) and set themes, including a preoccupation with soldiers—the subject of his 1978 collection Airships—and particularly with soldiers who come into unfortunate play with civilians who often use them poorly. Throughout, no matter what the year, Hannah proves again and again his ability to compress whole lives into single paragraphs, as when in the title story he summarizes the soul of a librarian turned classicist deeply mistrustful of love and willfully self-sufficient ("Versed in her own degree in history and art, she was decorating the house") and elsewhere writes admiringly of a woman who, in quite a feat down in bayou country, can out-drink any man and then get up promptly the next day to make the world turn.
With the caveat that a certain racial epithet still retains its power to shock here, an essential book for any library of Southern literature—and a welcome guide for students of writing as well.
Barry Hannah's inimitable style is a performance, an end masquerading as a means. Depicting events as they are recalled, not as they unfold, his stories make stunning, sometimes achronological leaps. Yet most of us are attached to the idea that sequences demonstrate progress, if only because we hope that, in time, life will. The stories in this posthumous collection, Long, Last, Happy: New and Selected Stories, are arranged chronologically, a format that almost begs an assessment of his career. Assessment: Hannah revisited old themes in search of meaning. If this sounds banal, "meaning" is tricky in relation to Hannah, who began writing in a decade when Susan Sontag asked for literature to defy the desire for meaning, for an "erotics, not a hermeneutics, of art."
It's unlikely that Hannah took the advice of Sontag, or anyone who suggested what stories should be. But it was an era of intoxication, and we expected no less from our prose. Hannah courted clichés -- in language, ideological clichés too -- and deranged them. Individual words trail the smoke of previous connotations established by long usage. Accordingly, some words have lofty connotations. Others are pedestrian, trivial. The entirety of language is a scaffolding of fixed ideas, and ordinary people use words in familiar contexts, keeping usual connotations intact. But a virtuoso like Hannah put words in juxtapositions so startling they rattle the cage. A narrator, unmanned by the fact that his wife is taking flying lessons, says: "Some afternoons she'll come right over the roof of the house and turn the plane upside down. . . I want to rip her arm off. I want to sleep in her uterus with my foot hanging out."
He used this ferocious style in dialogue:
"My wife is a withered rag," one man blurts.
"Life here is a belligerent sow, not a prayer," responds the other.
Explosive anger turned inward, fetal. Sow next to prayer. These juxtapositions mock established meaning. By leveling distinctions between the serious and the mundane, Hannah dismantled conventional pieties.
His stories therefore flaunt style to the point of deemphasizing what happens, which is either very little (contemplation) or a lot (spates of random hardship and calamity). In this sense, his stories parody traditional stories in which causality matters. So they've sometimes been called metafiction. In fact, they're just style-drenched. Like Gertrude Stein -- and I know the comparison makes for disconcertingly strange bedfellows -- Hannah turned attention toward the texture of prose, its surprises, and away from what Stein considered the cruder surprise of plot with its implied message.
Hannah once said in an interview that, when he was young, disinhibition was his muse; in later years, regret was. As the book grows longer, the stories return to themes he once touched down on as controversial essence and then, in surreal fashion, linked to comic details. In the midst of first-wave feminism, he wrote: "I'd like to stick her brain. . . I'd like to have her hair falling around my bonker." He used the words "nigger" and "Negro," and enclosed them with images so unlikely we reconsidered our collective blind spots: "We unloaded the asses and Negroes from the back end of our car and managed to get a look at the map." And sometimes he left our blind spots as he found them. A saxophone played inexpertly sounds "like the mutterings of a field nigger."
However, in one of Hannah's last stories, a narrator says: "The lynching of blacks by vigilantes is gone forever, hope to God. We have a new aristocracy and they are black men." Klansmen are "imbecilic cowards cheered on by silence from miserable governors." Imbedded in his usual incantatory narration is a Hannahesque paraphrase of Edmund Burke's line about the silence of good men, a near-apology for "staying quiet when a heinous thing is about." Hannah always wrote about absence: the fish that got away; the woman who got away; the savior who, unrecognized, got away. He eventually seemed to say that meaning, unrecognized, got away too.
His final stories are both irreverent and sincere, a juxtaposition that doesn't pack a punch because stylized juxtapositions depend on irony. He ended his career more heartfelt than not. His characters speculate about "misincarnation." They're Christ-obsessed. They wait for a sign. Narrative logic still eludes them: "There must be a string flowing through these events but she couldn't find it." They opine, desperately. "Talk, talk, talk," one says. "Much said and nothing settled. You're not even certain of the subject anymore." These moments seem to contain Hannah's own appraisal of his life's work, which broached meaning but never fastened onto it. His early stories are audacious, brilliant, dazzling, evasive. Perhaps, as he wrote himself -- and may the God of "Water Liars" rest his soul -- "the romance depended on . . .never completing a thought."
When I am run down and flocked around by the world, I GO down to Farte Cove off the Yazoo River and take my beer to the end of the pier where the old liars are still snapping and wheezing at one another. The lineup is always different, because they're always dying out or succumbing to constipation, etc., whereupon they go back to the cabins and wait for a good day when they can come out and lie again, leaning on the rail with coats full of bran cookies. The son of the man the cove was named for is often out there. He pronounces his name Fartay, with a great French stress on the last syllable. Other wise you might laugh at his history or ignore it in favor of the name as it's spelled on the sign.
I'm glad it's not my name.
This poor dignified man has had to explain his nobility to the semiliterate of half of America before he could even begin a decent conversation with them. On the other hand, Farte, Jr., is a great liar himself. He tells about seeing ghost people around the lake and tells big loose ones about the size of the fish those ghosts took out of Farte Cove in years past.
Last year I turned thirty-three years old and, raised a Baptist, I had a sense of being Jesus and coming to something decided in my life—because we all know Jesus was crucified at thirty-three. It had all seemed especially important, what you do in this year, and holy with meaning.
On the morning after my birthday party, during which I and my wife almost drowned in vodka cocktails, we both woke up to the making of a truth session about the lovers we'd had before we met each other. I had a mildly exciting and usual history, and she had about the same, which surprised me. For ten years she'd sworn I was the first. I could not believe her history was exactly equal with mine. It hurt me to think that in the era when there were supposed to be virgins she had allowed anyone but me, and so on.
I was dazed and exhilarated by this information for several weeks. Finally, it drove me crazy, and I came out to Farte Cove to rest, under the pretense of a fishing week with my chum Wyatt.
I'm still figuring out why I couldn't handle it.
My sense of the past is vivid and slow. I hear every sign and see every shadow. The movement of every limb in every passionate event occupies my mind. I have a prurience on the grand scale. It makes no sense that I should be angry about happenings before she and I ever saw each other. Yet I feel an impotent homicidal urge in the matter of her lovers. She has excused my episodes as the course of things, though she has a vivid memory too. But there is a blurred nostalgia women have that men don't.
You could not believe how handsome and delicate my wife is naked.
I was driven wild by the bodies that had trespassed her twelve and thirteen years ago.
My vacation at Farte Cove wasn't like that easy little bit you get as a rich New Yorker. My finances weren't in great shape; to be true, they were about in ruin, and I left the house knowing my wife would have to answer the phone to hold off, for instance, the phone company itself. Everybody wanted money and I didn't have any.
I was going to take the next week in the house while she went away, watch our three kids and all the rest. When you both teach part-time in the high schools, the income can be slow in summer.
No poor-mouthing here. I don't want anybody's pity. I just want to explain. I've got good hopes of a job over at Alabama next year. Then I'll get myself among higher paid liars, that's all.
Sidney Farte was out there prevaricating away at the end of the pier when Wyatt and I got there Friday evening. The old faces I recognized; a few new harkening idlers I didn't.
"Now, Doctor Mooney, he not only saw the ghost of Lily, he says he had intercourse with her. Said it was involuntary. Before he knew what he was doing, he was on her making cadence and all their clothes blown away off in the trees around the shore. She turned into a wax candle right under him."
"Intercourse," said an old-timer, breathing heavy. He sat up on the rail. It was a word of high danger to his old mind. He said it with a long disgust, glad, I guess, he was not involved.
"MacIntire, a Presbyterian preacher, I seen him come out here with his son-in-law, anchor near the bridge, and pull up fifty or more white perch big as small pumpkins. You know what they was using for bait?"
"What?" asked another geezer.
"Nuthin. Caught on the bare hook. It was Gawd made them fish bite," said Sidney Farte, going at it good.
"Naw. There be a season they bite a bare hook. Gawd didn't have to've done that," said another old guy, with a fringe of red hair and a racy Florida shirt.
"Nother night," said Sidney Farte, "I saw the ghost of Yazoo hisself with my pa, who's dead. A Indian king with four deer around him."
The old boys seemed to be used to this one. Nobody said anything. They ignored Sidney.
"Tell you what," said a well-built small old boy. "That was somethin when we come down here and had to chase that whole high school party off the end of this pier, them drunken children. They was smokin dope and two-thirds a them nekid swimmin in the water. Good hunnerd of em. From your so-called good high school. What you think's happnin at the bad ones?"
* * *
I dropped my beer and grew suddenly sick. Wyatt asked me what was wrong. I could see my wife in 1960 in the group of high schoolers she must have had. My jealousy went out into the stars of the night above me. I could not bear the roving carelessness of teenagers, their judgeless tangling of wanting and bodies. But I was the worst back then. In the mad days back then, I dragged the panties off girls I hated and talked badly about them once the sun came up.
"Worst time in my life," said a new, younger man, maybe sixty but with the face of a man who had surrendered, "me and Woody was fishing. Had a lantern. It was about eleven. We was catching a few fish but rowed on into that little cove over there near town. We heard all these sounds, like they was ghosts. We was scared. We thought it might be the Yazoo hisself. We known of some fellows the Yazoo had killed to death just from fright. It was over the sounds of what was normal human sighin and amoanin. It was big unhuman sounds. We just stood still in the boat. Ain't nuthin else us to do. For thirty minutes."
"An what was it?" said the old geezer, letting himself off the rail.
"We had a big flashlight. There came up this rustlin in the brush and I beamed it over there. The two of em makin the sounds get up with half they clothes on. It was my own daughter Charlotte and an older guy I didn't even know with a mustache. My own daughter, and them sounds over the water scarin us like ghosts."
"My Gawd, that's awful," said the old geezer by the rail. "Is that the truth? I wouldn't've told that. That's terrible."
Sidney Farte was really upset.
"This ain't the place!" he said. "Tell your kind of story somewhere else."
The old man who'd told his story was calm and fixed to his place. He'd told the truth. The crowd on the pier was outraged and discomfited. He wasn't one of them. But he stood his place. He had a distressed pride. You could see he had never recovered from the thing he'd told about.
I told Wyatt to bring the old man back to the cabin. He was out here away from his wife the same as me and Wyatt. Just an older guy with a big hurting bosom. He wore a suit and the only way you'd know he was on vacation was he'd removed his tie. He didn't know where the bait house was. He didn't know what to do on vacation at all. But he got drunk with us and I can tell you he and I went out the next morning with our poles, Wyatt driving the motorboat, fishing for white perch in the cove near the town. And we were kindred.
We were both crucified by the truth.
Excerpted from Long, Last, Happy by Barry Hannah Copyright © 2010 by Barry Hannah. Excerpted by permission of Grove Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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