- Victory in Defeat:A Valentine to Airships
Airships by the late-great Barry Hannah is a juggernaut of a collection. Published in 1978, these twenty monumental tales cover centuries of history, rocketing readers from the Civil War to Vietnam and back again—and even occasionally telescoping far into the fiery skies of a Post-WWIII future (which maybe doesn't seem so far off at our current historical juncture). In many of the pieces in Airships, we hear of wars and rumors of wars and witness the aftermath of the fighting. In "Midnight and I'm Not Famous Yet," a disgraced army captain returns home a lieutenant to Mississippi from Vietnam. Once arrived, he immediately falls in love and into bed with his beautiful aunt, but ultimately, he finds peace and grace while watching his favorite professional golfer lose at home on his own hometown course. The narrator concludes, "Love the loss as well as the gain. Go home and dig it. Nobody was killed. We saw victory and defeat, and they were both wonderful." The story "Eating Wife and Friends" picks up after an unexplained blight has famished much of the continental US thus reuniting families and resettling most Americans in a bizarro new South. The citizens of the future resemble the citizens of the past as they trade tales and barbs and harmonica songs all day long while getting razzed on homemade potato wine and eating grass and fungus and eventually each other. Jeb Stuart and the ghosts of the Civil War haunt these pages, too. Hannah was a writer who knew better than anyone perhaps that the past is just the present in a different costume. Sure, the technology changes: a horse morphs into an automobile and the automobile turns into a jet and the jet blasts-off and converts into a spaceship. But here on the ground, how much do we change really? Hannah seems to be suggesting in raucous yarn after yarn that we are all bound by similar desires yet find ourselves separated by our circumstances. In his trademark high-wire prose, the author offers simple, but complex, truths. Like in the story "Love Too Long," when the narrator, an out-of-work construction worker, watches his ex-wife fly over his house in a Cessna during a flying lesson and declares aloud his deepest desire: "I want to sleep in her uterus with my foot hanging out." The story ends thusly: "I'm going to die from love." A double bind indeed. Whether it's love or the lack thereof, Hannah's characters are interested in the bold and the bodily and they embrace the paradoxical. These folks are twisted seekers and freaks who find peace in the struggle, satori in the illicit, success in failure, victory in defeat, and truth in lies. Rereading Airships now, here on the cusp of my 39th birthday (the book and I are the exact same age) I'm struck by two things at once: (1) I'll probably never write something this magnificent and strange, and (2) It doesn't matter, because Barry Hannah already did.
Ryan Ridge is the author many books, including the hybrid novel, American Homes (2015). An assistant professor at Weber State University in Ogden, Utah, he codirects the Creative Writing Program.