Barry Hannah's ecstatic fiction is gathered in Long, Last, Happy.

Reading between the lines.
Dec. 20 2010 7:13 AM

Goodbye Epiphany, Hello Ecstasy

How Barry Hannah changed the American short story forever.

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Just as we listen to singers like Redding or Nina Simone whose voices seem proof that they feelmore than we do, we turn to Hannah's prose to feel human experience in its intensities and depths. More traditional, even epic, narratives crop up throughout Long, Last, Happy, such as masterworks like "Testimony of Pilot" and "Hey, Have You Got a Cig?" In these stories, too, Hannah consistently presents characters who long for ecstatic release and exuberant experience, seeking the groveling lows and roman-candle highs of life.

Flight, it's not surprising, is one of Hannah's eternal tropes. Pilots flit in and out of the stories collected in Long, Last, Happy. In "Testimony of Pilot," the character Quadberry flies an F-8 in Vietnam, returning to proclaim, "I am a dragon. America the beautiful like you will never know." "Even Greenland," a four-page formal gem from Captain Maximus(1985), tells of two pilots having to bail. Hannah's great literary move is this: Flight in these stories is not a means to or a metaphor for some psychological tension or resolution; it is an end unto itself.

This, indeed, is Hannah's lasting contribution to the story form. In Airships first and later in Captain Maximus and Bats Out of Hell, Hannah blasted the form out of the Joycean model of epiphany—whereby a short story seeks to impart to its characters, or readers, a hard-earned kernel of revelation—toward a more ecstatic model of release: The men and women in Hannah's fiction, often at great cost, stumble upon—or crowbar their way into—moments of escape, explosion, literal flight, even transcendence.

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It's an American innovation that has fundamentally changed the form. Without it, works like Denis Johnson's Jesus' Son, or the stories of Amy Hempel and Rick Bass, would not exist in the ways they do now. It really is what often brings Hannah's work closer to the realm of music than literature. Rarely do we listen to a song to understand a feeling. We do so to experienceit, to fly out into the song. You don't read Hannah, you sing along.

In this sense, Long, Last, Happy's third adjective proves a fitting salute, for Hannah remains one of the few writers who do not shrink from joy as a subject worthy of literature. So many of his sentences embrace exclamation. "Sabers, gentlemen, sabers!" are the famous last words of Ray, when the eponymous narrator speeds, in his fantasy life, to certain death as a Confederate soldier. That this ecstatic moment, like many of Hannah's, is fleeting, costly, and swallowed by imminent disaster does not in the slightest ironize it. The moment is joy and it is glory and it is meant to be.

"It's the job of the writer to entertain but entertain deeply," Hannah told his students, of whom I was lucky to be one. Or, as he wrote elsewhere: "I look for writing to bring back joy. And I intend to join in the hunt for all the killers of joy in Our World." Hannah gives a reader just that: escapism in the deepest, most Christian sense of the word. In doing so, he captures, as well as any of his contemporaries, all the earthly woe we are so desperate to leave behind.

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Jacob Rubin is currently making a documentary about Barry Hannah titled "Never Die: The Mad Genius of Barry Hannah." The Web site for the film is neverdiethemovie.com