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ROBERT KLEVAY Auburn University at Montgomery “He tossed his line out grimly”: Barry Hannah’s Literary Parables IN A 1983 INTERVIEW, BARRY HANNAH DESCRIBED THE RELATIONSHIP between himself and his readers: I treat my readers better than a lot of writers do. I expect a hip, wise reader, and I don’t have to tell that boy or girl everything. I expect some complicity with it. I hope I can get this. . . . Some of the weakest writing I read is where some guy is trying to grab you and hold you up to a telescope: this is nature my way, look at that. I try not to invade the reader’s privacy in that way. (Interview with Vanarsdall 340) Hannah sought to entertain his readers with the fewest possible words and encouraged them to supply their own interpretations of his work. No examples of Hannah’s writing more clearly show his concern with implication over denotation than two short stories about the inhabitants of Farte Cove: the 1978 story, “Water Liars,” and its 1993 sequel, “High-Water Railers.” Although critics have shown how the two stories explore an important and obsessive theme, the need for human beings to protect themselves from painful truths through grandiose lies, none has seen the stories as parables describing the author’s artistic goals for his own fiction and his attitude towards literary fame. “Water Liars” echoes the first chapter of Moby-Dick and defines artistic goals for Hannah’s fiction in relation to Melville’s famous novel at a time when Hannah was not yet a success. The story’s sequel, “High Water Railers,” defines itself just as sharply against the story that preceded it, as Hannah attempts to understand his unanticipated success. Both stories address what Ruth Weston has identified as “the omnipresent substory of the writer at work and of the writing process” (86) in Hannah’s fiction; the first story stages a competition for its readers’ attention between bawdy jokes and a pat spiritualrevelation,whilethesecondconsciouslyparodiessucharivalry. Both stories explore what elements are necessary for creating not only a famous literary work, but also a work consistent with Hannah’s own evolving artistic credo. 130 Robert Klevay Despite their strong thematic similarities, “Water Liars” is unlikely to remind first-time readers of the opening of Melville’s novel. In fact, “Water Liars” and “High Water Railers” most immediately recall Hannah’s first story of the decaying resort of Farte Cove. The short, four-page sketch, “All the Old Faces Harkening at the Rail” showcases the author’s scabrous humor with little suggestion of latent seriousness (Weston 86-87). The old men on the pier of the lake introduced in “All the Old Faces” share the “common denominator . . . that none of them was honest” (140). They brag about their knowledge of the world, including past sexual exploits, as one of their number, Oliver, leaves their company to be with his younger girlfriend (142). The girlfriend inspires the lies of one old man, Fish, who describes “Rainbow days” at Pearl Harbor in 1941: “The women were so pretty they slept right in the bed with me and the wife. She forgave me everything. It was just like stroking puppies, all of them the color of a goldfish” (142). As the small boat containing Oliver and his girlfriend pulls away from the pier, one old man asks, “Can that boat hold the two of ’em?,” to which another, Ulrich, replies “As long as it keeps goin’ it can. . . . When the motor ever gives out, the whole thing will sink” (142). Ulrich’s remark is melancholy: the reply suggests that the old men have begun to die because they have stopped moving, a fate which Oliver has momentarily escaped. However, the context also suggests that Ulrich is unaware of the morose implications of his words. He is absorbed in the pseudo-scientific fact and his own pseudo-knowledge, as the story’s third person narrator suggests by declaring that Ulrich “featured himself a scientist” (142). “Water Liars” also features lecherous humor, but initially appears to have a more spiritual, somber tone, an impression created through the first person narrator’s perspective on the pier. The tone brings...


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pp. 129-147
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