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BOOK REVIEW / FICTION

Guilt, Humankind's Painful Inheritance : HIGH LONESOME by Barry Hannah; Atlantic Monthly $22, 240 pages

December 23, 1996|MICHAEL HARRIS | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Having an original voice in fiction is both a blessing and a curse, as Barry Hannah demonstrates in his latest collection of short stories.

Southern writers can be likened to a pack of hounds, crashing through the Mississippi canebrakes in pursuit of William Faulkner, still the biggest bear in the woods. Their coats come in all colors, and they yelp in a variety of voices.

Few, though, are bred as singularly as Hannah ("Airships," "Ray," "Bats Out of Hell"), who sniffs for spoor so wide of the main trail that we find ourselves wondering halfway through each of his stories: Can this dog hunt?

Here's an early paragraph from "Get Some Young," the longest of these 12 stories of bad men and madmen, drunkards and killers, the lovelorn and the woebegone:

"This man Tuck last year stood behind the counter heedless of his 41st birthday when two lazy white girls came in and raised their T-shirts then ran away. He worried they had mocked him in his own store and only in a smaller way was he certain he was still desirable and they could not help it, minxes. But at last he was more aggrieved over this than usual and he felt stuffed as with hot meat breaking forth unsewed at the seams. Yes girls, but through his life he had been stricken by young men too and became ruinously angry at them for teasing him with their existence. It was not clear whether he wished to ingest them or exterminate them or yet again, wear their bodies as a younger self, all former prospects delivered to him again. They would come in his life and then suddenly leave, would they, would they now?"

This is a style that demands we make up our mind about it. It's that bad--or that good. It makes us itch, like ticks on a dog--the deliberate crudity of syntax and punctuation, sentences telescoped inside one another like railroad cars in a head-on wreck, dialogue blurred into narration, a mongrel mix of formal diction and dialect. After each bite, it fills itself with a ruby bead of our blood.

"Get Some Young" has a plot straight out of the decadent school of Erskine Caldwell, Barry Gifford or Harry Crews. Tuck and his unhappy wife both lust after Swanly, an orphan and the handsomest of several boys camping by a nearby river. Their rival in voyeurism is Sunballs, a randy old hermit. The couple's seduction of Swanly briefly succeeds; Hannah's surprise for us is that they enjoy a genuine ecstasy, beyond good and evil, before the inevitable, bloody punishment.

This is what's different about Hannah--a difference the awkwardness of his prose seems designed to emphasize. Pay attention, now he seems to say, because this is all coming at you at once. No time for niceties. His people go wrong in the usual Southern ways: whiskey, adultery, violence. But unlike most of the rest of the pack, his nose isn't on the trail of evil--not primarily; instead, he's casting around for the scent of compassion.

And humor. Here are a few lines from "Carriba," one of Hannah's more surreal yarns:

"I saw her nishy once when she was wet out of the shower but don't think it wasn't offered. She was laughing. I was right under her window. Her brother, the one who killed his father, was in the room beyond her petting that bobcat their horrible mother Blackie had brought up last week. Note the door between their rooms was open. They have a brother named Ebbnut. He stays back in Carriba with Blackie and has fattened within the last year, since the shooting of the father, into a great neckless artillery shell."

Hannah also has a more realistic mode, tinged with nostalgia. In the title story, the narrator remembers his childless, rich Uncle Peter, a plantation owner who was kind to the boy and knew "the way of things" but whose binge drinking and dread of water betrayed an inner despair--"the high lonesomes." In his youth, he had killed a man. Now, with Uncle Peter long dead, the narrator dreams that he, too, has killed.

To sympathize with the guilty--as Hannah does, as his stories make us do--is to inherit that guilt, as part of the human condition. "My own nephew was nodding the whole while I was telling him this. He has dreamed this very thing."

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