There’s a blurb in the front of Airships that calls the author “afraid of nothing in experience.” Before you get to any of his work in the book, there’s an “appreciation,” not an introduction, by Richard Ford that makes the same wild claims. When Barry Hannah died, the Oxford American compiled stories from people who knew and loved him; the magazine was an Irish bar and Hannah a dead cop. He’s celebrated, for sure. A total rock star, the sort of name said thickly among other writers, with warm jealousy. You have to read Hannah for a complete education, to know something of what it means to be poor and ecstatic and alive and American.
I bought Airships as soon as I was told. The first time I cracked it open, I was in the Atrium at Lincoln Center enjoying a bottle of beer and a sandwich wrapped in plastic. It was just about the worst way to read a Barry Hannah short story that I could have found. “Water Liars” fell with a thud; I can’t pick a time I’ve felt dumber than after reading that story and thinking, That’s okay, I guess. I was wrong and quickly grew to envy Hannah’s every word. Language sits like plums on his characters’ tongues. An old geezer in “Water Liars” says the word “intercourse,” and it has “high danger in his old mind.” I’m convinced this sort of weight is what writing teachers mean when they call some styles economical. Each sentence opens doors, makes bridges, hammers a nail. This literature is handy. Ford’s right: you feel sorry for yourself while reading the best.
What I mean is Hannah is among several artistic experiences that could disappoint you, in a variety of ways. Don’t believe the hype calling anything something that will change your life, but I’m being honest when I say that Airships did something close to that for me. Don’t tell Grove Press, but I’ve typed out Barry Hannah stories to give friends. I’ve waved his books at others in stores with too persistent enthusiasm. I’m a hagiographer for a man I never had the chance to meet.
Beyond Hannah’s obvious craft and his peculiar style, what is the reason for such worship? Why bother with images of hot dirt and humid Southern nights, porch swings and pick-up trucks, when I’m from Northern California, where it’s cold in June? Isn’t there something romantic in my own backyard? I’m like John Fogerty, a boy from El Cerrito, California, singing hoid instead of heard in “I Heard It through the Grapevine.” I’m like black Irish Phil Lynott wailing that he’s just lonesome on the trail, thinking about a certain female. These are poseurs I love, inauthentic seekers of authenticity. They lie so good. They lie just as good as Hannah, who said himself that the written word was nothing compared to music anyway.
I don’t suppose I know the answer to why that Southern romanticism has a power over me. I just know that I think about Barry Hannah’s magic often. I think about “Water Liars” in the summer, especially when it’s hot like it has been lately in New York, because of its theme of escape. “Water Liars” is a story about a man who goes on vacation because he doesn’t know how to solve a problem. At the risk of holding apples up to oranges, I remember being fired from a job and hitting the road to go drink by a lake. I like to think we’ve all done this.
I had been working as a barista in a coffee shop that was glamorously deluded about its presence in my town. It sat squarely down the block from a Target, but the décor intended a piazza atmosphere. I’ve never been one to hide my contempt in situations where there aren’t feelings at stake; my face cannot lie in certain circumstances; I’d be terrible at poker. Of course: at the age of nineteen, I was a surly barista in a café that preached sophistication. This seems metonymical of my adolescence, filled with unfounded jealousy of someone else, pretension and posing to achieve an effect you read about somewhere else. You’d think my demeanor would only add to the joy of a customer seeking the real European experience, but it didn’t. I was told I was being let go because they needed to give my shifts to the owner’s son.
This fiction felt like a judgment of my whole personality, made worse by the fact that a high school friend had come to visit me that day. He was waiting for me. He saw me walk slowly over to him, taking off my apron, straightening my skirt. He saw my face. I must have looked like I had eaten a whole bag of sugar in one go. On the one hand, I didn’t have to go to work every day anymore, forcing a smile for construction workers, reception temps, and pimpled nerds with better jobs at Barnes & Noble. But, on the other, far more important hand, I was told I couldn’t do something I didn’t want to do in the first place. I had failed where I hadn’t even known I wanted to succeed. My stomach hurt, and there was someone there to watch.
In “Water Liars,” the narrator finds out that his wife has lied to him about being a virgin before they got married. This new information leaves him “dazed and exhilarated,” with images of the past that are “vivid and slow.” It shouldn’t matter, but it does. He goes crazy. He goes to a fishing cove to get away from his jealousy. At the cove, there are men who sit around telling ghost stories and tales about teenagers caught skinny-dipping. Nothing too disturbing, just some shit-talking. Ultimately a newbie tells a story that’s too much, and the rest banish him. Our narrator goes fishing with him the next morning and feels kindred.
The day after I got fired, I drove, blasting Thin Lizzy the whole way, to my friend’s cabin on Lake Berryessa. The sun was strong enough to give me a sloping burn on the arm that hung out the driver’s seat window. In a valley, I pulled over to get better directions as I had gotten lost somewhere among the vineyards. I spread a map out on the hood of my car while my friend dictated over the noise of her college friends opening beers and jumping off the dock. As soon as I hung up, I stepped to my right, and my foot slid out of my sandal into the dirt, a sharp pain shooting through my toe. I looked down and saw a sliver of green bottle glass in my flesh. There were no bandages in my glove compartment, no convenience stores for miles. For a while I stood on one foot, on the side of this two-lane road. My foot bled while I watched a slight wind rustle the young vines that had yet to be pruned. I cursed loudly, to no one.
“But I was the worst back then,” says Hannah’s “Water Liars” narrator. “In the mad days back then, I dragged the panties off girls I hated and talked badly about them once the sun came up.” Paragraphs earlier, he says, “I don’t want anybody’s pity,” but he does. He wants something, at least.
I showed up at my friend’s cabin, and everyone had gotten drunk already. It was 3 in the afternoon. I drank a beer, wrapped my foot in a gummy Band-Aid, and fell asleep in the sun on the deck. I woke up two hours later with a sunburn and the realization that I hadn’t brought a change of clothes. So I got back in the car and drove home, suddenly more alert to the differences in winding roads. Miserable, I returned to my parents’ driveway by the time it had gotten dark. Like Hannah’s guy, “my jealousy went out into the stars of the night above me.” It had been so hot all day, and now it was cool. I sat on the hood of the car for a bit before going inside, sipping a Diet Coke from a gas station. Later I would read a story that would remind me of this moment even though there was barely anything resembling it in there, and that’s what handy writing does for me, for you. You and I feel kindred. You and I believe a character that says he’s going to die from love even if you’ve never fallen in it yourself.
Why is that so hard to do well? How can it be so difficult to lie? Hannah’s “Water Liars” narrator, once more, despicable as always: “I’m still figuring out why I couldn’t handle it.”