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 to those who would sheathe themselves in plastic and hunt wolves. They might come gunning for him. Yet his heroes aren’t in hiding—what charges their motors is defiance. “You may see me with the eye-patch…in almost any city of the South, the Far West, or the Northwest. I am on the black and chrome Triumph, riding right into your face.”
Despite Hannah’s love of the untamed South, it’s the Northwest that serves as the scene for this collection’s most ambitious narrative, “Power and Light.” Written in the form of a screen treatment, “Power and Light” manages to make a sort of poetry out of camera pans and zoom-ins.
Aeroscan of birds, all kinds of seabirds, sea, Puget Sound with boat life, wharfs, seals, howling noisy seabirds again, here and there a helicopter. We penetrate the special leaden weather, down with the wharfside rummies in the Cold Crab café. A bearded woman in a bright flowered wrap sits sucking coffee. Her hair is bleached a vile startling blonde.
The camera retreats. “Around, down, up. Deformations or rude beauties.” Your shot, Mr. Director. The perfect director for “Power and Light” would be the Robert Altman of Three Women and California Split, smoothly drawing back the camera to show us lives blurring within a thicket of choice detail. “Power and Light” has the daydreamy transitions of the films Altman made in the mid-Seventies, the dislocations of a mind floating free from its body on astral leave. If “Power and Light” doesn’t cohere (Three Women didn’t either), it gives a heady tour of the monster towers and electric plants of Seattle, whose hardhat women—“Breathing big air women”—serve as the guardians of the city’s super voltage. Hannah turns this vision into a punk ode:
This girl is chaining your breakfast together, citizen. She is hitching the light up for your asinine patio party, your old starlight teevee movies, your electric toothbrush, vibrator, magic fingers.
In the distance, as if in rebuke, Mount Rainer raises its mute, mighty head.
Captain Maximus doesn’t have the sex or wild, automotive force of Ray and The Tennis Handsome, but this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Ray and The Tennis Handsome were so packed with wicked, fast improvisations that they wore themselves out trying to maintain their headlong drive. Nor does Captain Maximus have the juiced-up violence of Airships, where one notorious story ended with the narrator bashing in a woman’s skull with a tombstone. There’s no denying that compared to these books, Captain Maximus seems a bit sickly and so-what. A thin book, it has a lot of loose flesh hanging from its bones. Frequently Hannah seems less interested in telling a tale than in embellishing a reputation as demon drinker and campus tongue:
The university was a neo-Grecian dump with a good ball team. The only thing was to get drunk and fire at will. The chairman fired back with drinking and eating female students.
Ah, those beauties sweet to me when I was down: Val, Ann, Rita Veranoff, a few others who can’t be told because of their boyfriends.
Along with Val and Ann and Rita, we’re furnished with the names of Hannah’s best pals in “Idaho,” the novelist Tom McGuane and his wife Laurie. Here the affection really turns to candy. “Later, my nephew Taylor and I ate at the George Street Grocery with the McGuanes, who had their new baby Annie with them. Oh, it was wonderful. McGuane is a giant in heart and body, and where are you giants anymore?” Such a pat on the back may be a minor offense, though the tone here is awfully fawning. More grievously, Hannah ruins a fine, neat Hemingwayesque story, “Getting Ready,” by tacking on a freaky finish. “Getting Ready” is about a man who has never caught “a significant fish,” and who after much well-described labor lands a shark. Hannah doesn’t stop there, unfortunately. The story ends with a triumphant fisherman teetering around on stilts and yelling at rich people as they come off their sailing boats, “Fuck you! Fuck you!” Too often in Captain Maximus Hannah himself is up on stilts, trying to make a scene.
At his best, Barry Hannah has a quirky command of language, a light-fingered delight in the absurd; he’s one of the few short-story writers around who refuse to paint the world in shades of gray. He’s a joyous colorist. But rereading his recent work, I found a streak of ugliness. To put it plainly, I’m referring to his fondness for the word “nigger.” In Airships, the word was used as a slapstick slur by characters who were clearly rednecks: “This nigger was eating a banana, hanging his leg out the front seat on the curb. He didn’t have socks. He was truly eating that banana.” Hence the use of the epithet could be defended as an expression of his characters’ coarseness. (When I was growing up in Maryland, saying “nigger” marked one as white trash.) But by the time he wrote Ray the word had become a casual slight, spat out as easily as a sunflower seed. “Ray is the liveliest and most ingratiating of narrators,” claims the jacket copy on the paperback edition, and here are a few of Ray’s ingratiating remarks:
The SAM missile came up, the heat-seeker. It stood up in front of me like a dick at twenty thousand feet, and the squadron captain told me what the hell was going on. He was a nigger from Louisiana: I think it was the first time a nigger saved my life….
He lives now, handsome and a credit to his race, a lawyer in Los Angeles.
Then with duty on my mind, I go by the emergency room. Nothing. The usual hurt niggers, but all’s in control.
I went down to the first floor and got some coffee. Saw a nigger in a Federal suit and asked him if I could try out his gun. There was nothing else to do. Then I got some Nabs. Those are fun. I ate two…. Welfare niggers who don’t work for a living are all over the place.
You are a chieftain. You threw the ball, you scrambled, and the niggers dropped it.
And in Captain Maximus, we’re treated to this gratuitous exchange:
“Hey, Polly,” says somebody else. “You know why niggers stink?”
“So blind people can hate them too,” she fires back.
It’s an old one.
(“Power and Light”)
I’m not saying that Hannah is a sheeted Klansman raising a torch of hate, but his frequent and cavalier use of the word “nigger” does make one question the feelings he harbors in his heart. Certainly the black characters in Hannah’s fiction are not drawn as sharply as his white characters are drawn; they tend to be faceless smudges on the skids, a slow drag on society.* When Hannah owns up to his racial ill will in Captain Maximus, his manner is so blithe and glancing that it’s as if he’s merely musing over his rascal past. In the autobiographical “Idaho” (written originally for Esquire’s “Why I Live Where I Live” series), Hannah mentions that some black men in his employ had stolen cherished antique guns from him. “I was angry and started using the word nigger a great deal, this time meaning it with real nastiness in my heart. But it’s all right now.” All right for him, maybe, but what about those he slurred? An apology is owed.
Barry Hannah is too gifted to keep dipping his straw into the same dirty water.
“Southerners need carbonation,” observes Nancy Lemann in her first novel Lives of the Saints, a remark that could serve as the motto for Barry Hannah’s confederacy of drunks. But where Hannah’s characters are self-polluting roughs with their heads in the icebox (must be a beer in here somewhere), Lemann’s are genteel relics of the Old South, drowning majestically in the punch bowl. Noble, white-carnation wrecks. Sectioned off into brief encounters, Lives of the Saints opens with a New Orleans wedding party in which everyone is going deliriously gaga beneath the striped tents. The groom, sweat-damp in his white tie and tails, looks as if he needs a transfusion. As for the bride, “Mary Grace Stewart was the type of girl you see being dragged screaming from a convertible sports car outside of the bar at the Lafayette Hotel at three in the morning by her father and brothers.” Gingerly stepping over the fallen like Scarlett O’Hara in a moaning field of Confederate wounded is Lemann’s narrator, Louise Brown. She, too, is coming unwired. Her nervous system is a radio crackling with static and competing frequencies:
Mr. Sully Legendre was weaving toward us. He had silver hair parted in the middle, making melodramatic wings on either side of his face, and a glamorous silver mustache. The society column in the newspaper referred to him as “the hyper-handsome Sully Legendre.”
This hopeless burden fell on his wife. That girl got her heart broke.
He gazed at us with his heavy-lidded eyes, and then screamed in a maniacal voice, “BABY!”
Then he clasped me to his bosom.
“CLAUDE, DAWLIN!” he screamed to my companion.
Heads turned. Silence fell upon suddenly hushed conversations. It was as though Mr. Sully Legendre were returned, at last, from the Odyssey.
“BABY!” he screamed again in histrionic amazement and joy. ‘IT’S LOUISE BROWN!” he screamed, and stood riveted in amazement.
The man was plainly falling apart.
Prefaced with a quotation from Evelyn Waugh, Lives of the Saints smarts with raw irritation as the vile bodies of New Orleans society remove themselves from the lawn (“Tom, the bride’s old flame, was strewn upon the ground, tangled up in the wires of his Walk-Man, passed out underneath his car”). But where Waugh in his early novels is savage and jaunty, Lemann seems anchored to her peeves; she keeps poking her stick at the hornet’s nest, courting a rash of stings. Yet her sulkiness, like Waugh’s briskness and aplomb, is spikily comic. Put upon, Louise seems capable of shooting BB’s from her narrowed pupils.
“You know, Louise, you and Claude are always yearning after vague things. You cherish illusions. I met someone the other day who was just like you—he yearned after vague things. You could tell, when you asked him about his job, that what he really liked to do was just to yearn after vague things. You’re all living in a dream world.”
“That’s only the twelfth time you’ve told me that in the past two days,” I said.
If Louise and Anthony Powell’s Pamela Widmerpool were ever to meet, they could blow clouds of smoke into each other’s faces. It’s difficult to imagine, however, that Pamela Widmerpool would second Louise’s notion that “nuts made life worth living.” To Pamela Widmerpool, nuts are for crushing.
After a chain of nervous breakdowns (Lemann’s wedding bash is equal to the best parties in Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time), Lives of the Saints becomes a bit too dawdling and dreamy. It could use a little nutcracking. Nancy Lemann is expert and original when she’s standing back and taking beady aim, but as the novel fidgets along she tends to dote on Louise’s beau, Claude, tenderly mussing his hair and maintaining the shine on his halo even after he gets involved in shady activities (including a race-track scandal). Claude begins to poke around the house in an old bathrobe and crummy slippers, “eating pathetic wilted cheese sandwiches,” yet he never loses a certain doomed courtly glamour. He succeeds Walker Percy’s Will Barrett as the South’s last gentleman, making a bad-movie exit into the wet streets of tomorrow: “With his hands in his pockets and his collar turned up against the rain, my beloved Claude receded—and disappeared for years.” (You can almost see the credits coming up in white letters as a lone saxophone mourns.) But what’s pleasing about the book, aside from the dragon-puffs of humor and annoyance, is its sense of southern charm and redolence gone slightly tilt.
We went to the country to Perseverance and Souvenir. The grace of Perseverance set a calm into my heart—the famous avenue of oaks, the gardenia and banana trees. We sat on wrought-iron chairs painted green, looking out to the avenue of oaks. The men wore seersucker suits and horn-rimmed glasses and the matriarchs were the salt of the earth who exhibited untold charm and mirth through such adversities as seven pregnancies….
It’s like a self-transquilizing sigh, this voice. This is how Blanche DuBois talked before the lampshade was torn away and life became lit with a naked bulb.
June 27, 1985
When a black junkie staggers into “Power and Light,” the white workers stand back and stare: “Lou augments everything they’ve ever thought about ‘niggers’ at their worst, and they are happily gouging in with their comments.” At least he put quotes around the word this time! But the implication is that even at their best, blacks are still “niggers” (like that lawyer Hannah’s narrator sneeringly calls “a credit to his race”). ↩