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Long, Last, Happy : New and Collected Stories
Barry Hannah was widely recognized as one of the masters of the American short story and his death in March 2010 brought writers and readers out of the woodwork to mourn an irrevocable loss to American letters. Now, combining the best of the four story collections he published during his lifetime and the final manuscript he left behind, Long, Last, Happy will cement his legacy and serve as the definitive collection of his finest work in the story form.
From his first collection, Airships, Barry Hannah made the literary world sit up and take notice. His ferocious, glittering prose and sui generis worldview introduced readers to a literary New South--a fictional landscape that "Vanity Fair Daily" has summarized as covering "Women, God, lust, race, nature, gay Confederates, good old boys, bad old boys, guns, animals, fishing, fighting, cars, pestilence, surrealism, gritty realism, the future, and the past . . . tossed together in glorious juxtapositions."
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution called Hannah "the mendacity-battling colossus bestriding the cotton-growing, Wal-Mart-shopping, history-haunted states the rest of the country calls 'down there.'" The definitive collection of a giant of the American short story, and including never-seen new material, Long, Last, Happy confirms that Barry Hannah was one of the most brilliant voices of our time.
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November 01, 2010
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Excerpt from Long, Last, Happy by Barry Hannah
Airships and Before
OUR HOST ENERGETICALLY STAMPED THE BRAKE AND WHIPPED OUR STAtion wagon into a space that seemed to me to have burst out of the metallic desert from nowhere. Although assured by our host that we were indeed lucky, I held doubt as to our advantage. In fact, a single backward glance convinced me that we were no farther than a red light from our host's home. The host never looked back, strangely enough, so convinced was he that we were indeed lucky. We unloaded the asses and Negroes from the back end of our car and managed to get a look at the map and have a cigarette while the Negroes loaded the donkeys' backs. The noise of passing caravans and their personnel almost obliterated our host's admonitive plea, which I thought, from what I could hear between the jacking of the asses and the work songs of the Negroes, was well put and persuaded me, after a perusal of the horizon and the frustrations involved between our intended ascent and its gleam, that we should and would just have to stick together, that is that part of his speech which I was able to hear persuaded me, for the jacking of the asses, the lament of the eunuchs, the cries of the Lost, the general din of the vulgar in their ascent ahead were overpowering.
After a short while of walking, I settled into the comfort that we were in the hands of competence with our host. He indeed was directing our little sortie ably, never once flinching from the cries of desperate souls who burst wide and panic-eyed from the aisles of cars, stumbling along in opposite direction to us, earnestly tilting their compasses to the light, grappling or dragging collapsed or semicollapsed wives and children wailing behind them, nor either from the occasional and increasingly frequenter parties heading back toward us either gasping resolutely or displaying on crudely lettered and upraised billboards: "There is no use" and "Turn back now, Brother." We encountered even several of those pathetic shades of men running bearded and half-naked among the chrome searching for their cars, their families, a hint of the Outer or Inner Passage, or those more pitiable skeletons who had lost all hope, babbling, imploring alms, or deliriously polishing their underwear. These, our host explained, as he beat away one of these very safe refugees from the tail of our caravan (they had been known to pillage supplies or even masquerade as eunuchs in desperate hope of attaching themselves to the successful caravan), were the ones probably befouled by imperfect compasses, lost maps, of cars identical with many others, the Lost. He hastened to add, and I could easily see his point, they were giving the game a bad name.
Meanwhile the Negroes faithfully prodded the asses and hummed pep songs. Three of the poor fellows fainted under their bales, those always seeming especially ponderous to me--until one of the perspiring Negroes explained to me that within the sheaves of burlap and wire was housed our liquor. I fully understood and appreciated then and could not help admiring our host for his elaborate and clever concealment of bliss. Two of the darkies, by the way, gave no indication of ever reviving and so our able host, over the protests of the eunuchs who I understood later were strictly and conscientiously union, recruited two of the Lost, floundering into our route, more than eager to take up the burdens. We proceeded then down and across infinite aisles, up grade, the entire first night of the journey. All the way the surrounding clamor alerted us to the need for sticking together, which was constantly the admonition of our great host. The humble music of the bearers had noticeably changed into a vigorous dialectic chant diatribing the impossible incompetency of the ofay. Deaf to this prejudice, the two Lost, as it were, the laboring minority, and dumb except through energetic eyes, peered passionately toward the horizon and its dull glow, from which sprung our Hope.
Since dawn hid the glow of our destination, we rested then, and fell to singing songs to the glory of our team. The clamor around us, nevertheless, sustained itself in the merchants who dared venture as far back as we were, screaming their offers, which entailed, at what I thought to be highly irregular fees, such entities as the True Maps, relics from the Destination itself, survival pamphlets, Dexedrine and other narcotics stimulating fervor and perseverance, and even such optimistic and far-flung symbols of the Contest itself as partisan flags, medals, and swords.
Night fell finally and we each rushed for our binoculars. Sure enough, in the very far East, lights again charged the air and the resilience of our destination hung even brighter on the horizon. Our host persuaded our caravan into action, enthusing each constituent with optimism and hope. Beside us, the anxious eyes of the two Lost fairly trembled in their sockets. Generally, the great inverse exodus gathered its paraphernalia around us, sending up a terrific din and repleting with victory and other earnest shouts. At this time we encountered a strange party intersecting our particular aisle. They were, doubtless, members of the Filthy Rich, for they snobbed us, high upon the backs of camels. I did think their transport indeed rare and their garb was fine, I'm sure, although of a longer cut than ours, and very elaborate you may be sure, even to the degree that they were thoroughly out of mode.
These fellows looked earnest enough, however, and so I ceased to suspicion their intent. There was not time, actually, for me to make their acquaintance since our relations with them were terminated when a darker member of their trio prodded his camel alongside our train and addressed our host.
"Is this then the light in the East?" he implored, whisking the curtains back from his face, which displayed solemnity and an almost inordinate degree of wiseness. "Is this then the light of the promised?" he again asked. I must admit he was incoherent to me and must have been to our host, for he threatened them against using our aisle and our dexterity of voyage. "Alas, we have come from afar," one of the other two lamented rather anachronistically. And while I sympathized with our host and held faith in his judgment I suspected that we should have been more courteous to this party, for actually, if it must be known what I was thinking, I feared they were UN delegates gone astray, as I have also heard is not inordinate. The fellows, at least, left passively and disappeared over the next promontory shortly, for their camels were swifter than our own caravan. The incident, however, did not cease to impress its moment on my mind for the remainder of the journey; the thought of the Three hunting back and forth between cars, scrounging the aisles unshaved and desperate as members of the Lost disturbed me, for I knew it would not breed any too good international relations to have them doing so.
After perhaps another two hours our host halted the train and had eunuchs lay our gear into a large square pile, perhaps twelve or fifteen feet high, on which he climbed with their help. So enthused was he over something he saw in his large binoculars that he toppled headlong off the platform and twisted his neck. The two of the Lost shivered and vomited with anxiety, poor fellows, and lifted themselves up on tiptoes to glimpse something over the hill. "What?" our entire train asked in unison. "Is it?" "Perhaps?"
Our joyous host leaped from the ground and held up his arms. Silence, except for the enthusiastic, staccato moans of the two Lost, thrilled the train.
"I have seen it," he uttered simply. "The stadium is just over the hill a few miles." With this announcement we shook hands, even congratulated the eunuchs, and for the occasion split one of the bales. Around us, the shouts of similar discoverers thrilled the air, there was much song and dance, with liquor flowing freely. I can say there was only one sad incident that wonderful night. The two Lost, in the head of expectation, completely lost their wits, broke from the train, ignoring the whip of our host, and scampered over the hills like goats. "A common temptation," the host had termed it in his Preparation for the Journey speech, and I was glad I had listened. Scanning the metallic jungle of rooftop aerials and infinite aisles and ways, the host offered a toast. I drank, but probably with less gusto than the rest because I realized we wouldn't, nor anybody except other fans on chance in their journeys, ever see those two of the Lost again.
WHEN I AM RUN DOWN AND FLOCKED AROUND BY THE WORLD, I GO down to Farte Cove off the Yazoo River and take my beer to the end of the pier where the old liars are still snapping and wheezing at one another. The lineup is always different, because they're always dying out or succumbing to constipation, etc., whereupon they go back to the cabins and wait for a good day when they can come out and lie again, leaning on the rail with coats full of bran cookies. The son of the man the cove was named for is often out there. He pronounces his name Fartay, with a great French stress on the last syllable. Otherwise you might laugh at his history or ignore it in favor of the name as it's spelled on the sign.
I'm glad it's not my name.
This poor dignified man has had to explain his nobility to the semiliterate of half of America before he could even begin a decent conversation with them. On the other hand, Farte, Jr., is a great liar himself. He tells about seeing ghost people around the lake and tells big loose ones about the size of the fish those ghosts took out of Farte Cove in years past.
Last year I turned thirty-three years old and, raised a Baptist, I had a sense of being Jesus and coming to something decided in my life--because we all know Jesus was crucified at thirty-three. It had all seemed especially important, what you do in this year, and holy with meaning.
On the morning after my birthday party, during which I and my wife almost drowned in vodka cocktails, we both woke up to the making of a truth session about the lovers we'd had before we met each other. I had a mildly exciting and usual history, and she had about the same, which surprised me. For ten years she'd sworn I was the first. I could not believe her history was exactly equal with mine. It hurt me to think that in the era when there were supposed to be virgins she had allowed anyone but me, and so on.
I was dazed and exhilarated by this information for several weeks. Finally, it drove me crazy, and I came out to Farte Cove to rest, under the pretense of a fishing week with my chum Wyatt.
I'm still figuring out why I couldn't handle it.
My sense of the past is vivid and slow. I hear every sign and see every shadow. The movement of every limb in every passionate event occupies my mind. I have a prurience on the grand scale. It makes no sense that I should be angry about happenings before she and I ever saw each other. Yet I feel an impotent homicidal urge in the matter of her lovers. She has excused my episodes as the course of things, though she has a vivid memory too. But there is a blurred nostalgia women have that men don't.
You could not believe how handsome and delicate my wife is naked.
I was driven wild by the bodies that had trespassed her twelve and thirteen years ago.
My vacation at Farte Cove wasn't like that easy little bit you get as a rich New Yorker. My finances weren't in great shape; to be true, they were about in ruin, and I left the house knowing my wife would have to answer the phone to hold off, for instance, the phone company itself. Everybody wanted money and I didn't have any.
I was going to take the next week in the house while she went away, watch our three kids and all the rest. When you both teach part-time in the high schools, the income can be slow in summer.
No poor-mouthing here. I don't want anybody's pity. I just want to explain. I've got good hopes of a job over at Alabama next year. Then I'll get myself among higher paid liars, that's all.
Sidney Farte was out there prevaricating away at the end of the pier when Wyatt and I got there Friday evening. The old faces I recognized; a few new harkening idlers I didn't.
"Now, Doctor Mooney, he not only saw the ghost of Lily, he says he had intercourse with her. Said it was involuntary. Before he knew what he was doing, he was on her making cadence and all their clothes blown away off in the trees around the shore. She turned into a wax candle right under him."
"Intercourse," said an old-timer, breathing heavy. He sat up on the rail. It was a word of high danger to his old mind. He said it with a long disgust, glad, I guess, he was not involved.
"MacIntire, a Presbyterian preacher, I seen him come out here with his son-in-law, anchor near the bridge, and pull up fifty or more white perch big as small pumpkins. You know what they was using for bait?"
"What?" asked another geezer.
"Nuthin. Caught on the bare hook. It was Gawd made them fish bite," said Sidney Farte, going at it good.
"Naw. There be a season they bite a bare hook. Gawd didn't have to've done that," said another old guy, with a fringe of red hair and a racy Florida shirt.
"Nother night," said Sidney Farte, "I saw the ghost of Yazoo hisself with my pa, who's dead. A Indian king with four deer around him."
The old boys seemed to be used to this one. Nobody said anything. They ignored Sidney.
"Tell you what," said a well-built small old boy. "That was something when we come down here and had to chase that whole high school party off the end of this pier, them drunken children. They was smokin dope and two-thirds a them nekid swimming in the water. Good hunnerd of em. From your so-called good high school. What you think's happning at the bad ones?"
* * *
I dropped my beer and grew suddenly sick. Wyatt asked me what was wrong. I could see my wife in 1960 in the group of high schoolers she must have had. My jealousy went out into the stars of the night above me. I could not bear the roving carelessness of teenagers, their judgeless tangling of wanting and bodies. But I was the worst back then. In the mad days back then, I dragged the panties off girls I hated and talked badly about them once the sun came up.
"Worst time in my life," said a new, younger man, maybe sixty but with the face of a man who had surrendered, "me and Woody was fishing. Had a lantern. It was about eleven. We was catching a few fish but rowed on into that little cove over there near town. We heard all these sounds, like they was ghosts. We was scared. We thought it might be the Yazoo hisself. We known of some fellows the Yazoo had killed to death just from fright. It was over the sounds of what was normal human sighing and amoanin. It was big unhuman sounds. We just stood still in the boat. Ain't nuthin else us to do. For thirty minutes."
"An what was it?" said the old geezer, letting himself off the rail.
"We had a big flashlight. There came up this rustling in the brush and I beamed it over there. The two of em making the sounds get up with half they clothes on. It was my own daughter Charlotte and an older guy I didn't even know with a mustache. My own daughter, and them sounds over the water scarin us like ghosts."
"My Gawd, that's awful," said the old geezer by the rail. "Is that the truth? I wouldn't've told that. That's terrible."
Sidney Farte was really upset.
"This ain't the place!" he said. "Tell your kind of story somewhere else."
The old man who'd told his story was calm and fixed to his place. He'd told the truth. The crowd on the pier was outraged and discomfited. He wasn't one of them. But he stood his place. He had a distressed pride. You could see he had never recovered from the thing he'd told about.
I told Wyatt to bring the old man back to the cabin. He was out here away from his wife the same as me and Wyatt. Just an older guy with a big hurting bosom. He wore a suit and the only way you'd know he was on vacation was he'd removed his tie. He didn't know where the bait house was. He didn't know what to do on vacation at all. But he got drunk with us and I can tell you he and I went out the next morning with our poles, Wyatt driving the motorboat, fishing for white perch in the cove near the town. And we were kindred.
We were both crucified by the truth.