Evolved Hannah depicts life in 'Hell'

March 25, 1993|By Joseph Coates | Joseph Coates,Chicago Tribune

He probably wouldn't want this to get around, but Barr Hannah is growing up. Emphatically, this doesn't equate in his case with burning out, as it does with so many other wild men who have come through the other side of the bottle sober in the wrong, passive sense of the word.

All the stylistic fireworks are still there, but now they illuminate the lows as well as the highs, go further into the sad deeps of life. This new, or newly emphasized, quality shines forth in a number of short recessional lyrics -- more like taps than the bTC cavalry charges we're used to from Mr. Hannah's trumpet.

The tone sounds clearly in "Herman Is in Another State," which begins: "I was somewhere I shouldn't have been, she tells me. . . . The gays Monty and Julian were there too. They were older now, middle-aged like the rest of us liars and vicious gossips, and not so hysterical about their place on the pier. A certain kind of rage was gone from us, as when I had set their car on fire in 1975," though the narrator isn't quite ready to accept it:

"What has happened to you guys? I wanted to know. I thought just boys and old men played checkers and dominoes."

In place of rage, there is a sense of mortal camaraderie -- a bunch of men and boys standing on a fishing pier of a sunset lake -- that Mr. Hannah has actually been working toward since the first story, "Water Liars," in his first book of stories, "Airships" (1978), and which is echoed yet again in this collection's opener, "High-Water Railers."

In "Herman," the title character is 77 and dying of cancer of the spleen. The narrator uses his illuminated pocket calculator as a lure that lets Herman catch his last big bass, after which the exhausted old man announces: " 'I've got to get over to another state. Got to go over to Houston and have my cancer cured.'

"By now it was eleven and the water on the pier was rippling around with a little breeze so as to remind us of the ocean and all the water we have not yet poisoned. Three quarters of the planet just lying there and asking us calmly again.

" 'I've got a better idea of my death now,' said Herman." So has Mr. Hannah, it's clear, not only in brief riffs like this one but also in novelistically dense long stories like "The Vision of Esther by Clem," in which a handsome, dilettantish physician (shades of "Ray") accustomed to being abused by beautiful women pays a strange penitential tribute to the plain young woman he once rejected who has since been gang-raped and nearly murdered on a houseboat.

Here Mr. Hannah tunes in to psychological depths we don't even associate with his work. "I didn't mind being the county Cleopatra on the barge for a while there," Esther says, and later tells Clem, the appalled doctor, how she has been told "that rape trials even got very funny in this state . . . because the public would rather agree that there was simply a misunderstanding at root, ha ha ha."

Even in the would-be jeux d'esprit of attempted outrage, as in "Upstairs, Mona Bayed for Dong" (a title Mr. Hannah credits to Tom McGuane), the story sabotages its evil intent with its own sadness and rue. In "Bats out of Hell Division," Mr. Hannah returns once again to the Civil War battle scenes of "Airships," but in darker, even Gothic, tones: "Corporal Nigg was still in his place, frozen upright, long dead but continuing as sentry. Who can fire him?"

Who, even, could create such a vision but Barry Hannah?

BOOK REVIEW

Title: "Bats out of Hell."

Author: Barry Hannah.

Publisher: Houghton Mifflin.

Length, price: 382 pages, $22.95.

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