BY LUKE HOPELY I really don’t know much about Barry Hannah, and after reading Airships I was really pissed the fuck off about this fact. I know that he is a Southern writer and his name is bounced around with the likes of Faulkner and Flannery O’Connor on his book covers. I know that he wrote books from the 70s until his death in 2010. He wrote Airships in the 70s while going through the obligatory alcoholic phase all great writers seem to enter, although some never leave (looking at you Hemingway). Most of importantly I know Barry Hannah writes some of the best short stories I’ve ever read in a style that wildly blends tragedy, comedy, action, and drama. The stories of Airships cover The Civil War, Vietnam, tennis, and high school brass bands all with the same intensity.
Despite all that, neither TIME’s list of The 100 best Novels of the 20th Century or Esquire’s 80 Books Every Man Should Read (the cornerstones of my early reading) include this master. That is criminal. I would have never even heard of the guy if I hadn’t happened upon his name in a blurb on the cover of CivilWarLand in Bad Decline that compared its author, George Saunders, to Barry Hannah. Apparently Airships and Barry Hannah are the kind of thing that people like to refer to, but never took the time to read. I asked an English professor if he knew anything about Airships and he just babbled about knowing the name but not having read it, like a hipster nodding his head and puffing a smoke when asked about the latest band playing Johnny Brenda’s. The obscurity of Airships isn’t the kind of thing that surround inaccessible “masterpieces” like a stack of beat up trashcans in an art gallery, shit you just don’t get, damn philistine. It’s the opposite. Hannah described most modern fiction as being lame and “wussy”:
“Very wussy. Correct, wussy…. I really want stories that are rippers in the old sense. Tales of high danger, high adventure, and high exploration. Tales that are as wonderful as frontier tales. I want more adventure.”
Although it sounds like your grandpa talking about how John Wayne six-shooting some banditos is real entertainment without any of those head-scratching egghead plot twists, Hannah’s opinion is a breath of fresh air when half of the short stories around are about not being able to get out of bed in morning because, you know…. postmodernism? Airships has the kind of action and adventure that Hannah claims to be channeling from Davy Crockett, but, instead of trapping beavers, Hannah’s characters are parachuting into Vietcong territory, blowing up M80s in the dirty South, and doing some good old fashioned Civil War calvary raiding. Despite the action, he never leaves out the philosophical or the cursory social critiques. The real achievement of Airships is Hannah’s ability to make you laugh, cheer, and, oh so beautifully, end his stories with a revelation that makes you feel all tingly inside because of just how goddamn good it is all mixed into a 20 page story. Sometimes what you need out of a short story is action and alcohol wrapped up in a nice literary bow, and Airships delivers. Big time.
One of the most memorable short stories is “Dragged Fighting From His Tomb,” where a Confederate cavalryman left for dead begins kicking some Yankee ass, and it’s kind of funny, but then its not funny because 15 pages later he’s an old man at a reunion for Confederate soldiers, deeply disillusioned and very drunk. The beginning of the story is casual and comedic despite the fact that its days after goddamn Gettysburg — when 51,000 Americans died in just three days. The narrator comes off like a 19th century Rambo, asking an old Union soldier, at gunpoint, to tell him “the most exquisite truths” he knows which ends up with the old timer pointing to his chest telling Johnny Rebel “my mouth can’t do it… but there’s something in here.. there’s a god in every one of us.” Nice.
There’s also casually brilliant passages like this:
“Some histrionic plumehead was raising his saber up and down on top of a pyramid of crossties. I shot him just for fun… This man I overmurdered.”
There are echoes of the pointless American violence of Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq in Hannah’s Civil War. But Hannah doesn’t let this gem of a short story hang on easy and obvious anti-war tropes. Instead, he embraces the complexity and depth of the subject, so he fast forwards to when the ‘overmurderer’ is old and haunted by the ghosts he killed, driving him to drink heavily and hire hookers. Actually doesn’t sound that bad of a life, but our man is confused and hurt about the war, and the story ends with a beautifully-written, if sometime incomprehensible, passage about how connected he is with his horse. This is how Airships goes, and it’s why I don’t understand why it isn’t more popular. I’m an English major and all the professors constantly bitch about how no one reads anymore. Maybe it’s because they force kids to read the goddamn Scarlet Letter when they’re 17, that can scare any hopeful away from the essential beauty of books and the timeless wisdoms gained therein. This is the kind of thing that would be PERFECT thing to read for an intro to English college class. Hint, hint.
PREVIOUSLY: Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian
Illustration by JOE CIARDIELLO