Southern Discomfort

Captain Maximus

by Barry Hannah
Knopf, 101 pp., $11.95

Lives of the Saints

by Nancy Lemann
Knopf, 144 pp., $13.95

After the coyote calls of Ray and The Tennis Handsome, Barry Hannah is carrying a more mellow tune in his new collection of stories, Captain Maximus. He seems to be bent over Wallace Stevens’s blue guitar, admiring his hands of rough leather as they strike “his living hi and ho.” Not that Hannah will ever turn crooner. Several months ago there was a movie circulating called The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai, and it’s a title that would suit any of Hannah’s bold, sonic fictions. A cowboy in the cockpit, Barry Hannah is American fiction’s Buckaroo Banzai. Flight is his theme: flight, as in high altitudes and splitting the sound barrier; flight, as in escape and evasion. He roams through psychedelic skies.

And his are solo flights—each of his books is a Song of Myself. The women tend to be wet velvet (“Carina gathered up her things and moved to the door, said she was leaving, but stopped to kneel at the living room couch to flick the tennis star’s sexual part into her savvy mouth”—The Tennis Handsome), and other men are little more than solicitous beer buddies, carrying can openers in their first-aid kits. Nature, too, is a flimsy construction, a stage set that can be struck at whim. “Now I guess I should give you swaying trees and the rare geometry of cows in the meadow or the like—to break it up. But, sorry, me and this one are over” (Ray).

The one constant in Hannah’s climate is a creeping mist of unease in Hannah himself, generated by booze and fatigue. “For a moment I’m entering a zone of Edgar Allan Poe privacy,” he writes in Ray. “The border of vague in a semi-German or Greek swamp. Rising sins from my past are coming up and haunting my insides, and there’s this miserable dew on my buckle loafers.”

Captain Maximus is characteristically streaked with pratfalls and wisecracks, gunplay and foreplay (“With one hand in her hair and the other around a flare pistol, I shouted yes! yes! yes! in the rain”), all of it rendered in hummingbird prose, abrupt and jokey. Sentences seem to fly backward to deliver their comical news. Eliot’s The Waste Land is rudely described as “the slide show of some snug librarian on the rag,” and the academic colleagues of “It Spoke of Exactly the Things” are dismissed as “good folks not worthy of shoveling Shakespeare’s house of night soil.” Once again the South is the true humid seat of American passion. California is a watermelon patch for morons and “an excellent place for polishing your hatreds.” Dallas is even worse.

Dallas—computers, plastics, urban cowboys with schemes and wolf shooting in their hearts. The standard artist for Dallas should be Mickey Gilley, a studied fraud who might well be singing deeply about ripped fiberglass. His cousin is Jerry Lee Lewis, still very much from Louisiana. The Deep South might be wretched, but it can howl.

No wonder Hannah gives the evil eye…

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