I was an ex-jock slash bouncer slash carpenter getting my guts up to actually admit to friends, family and drinking buds that I wanted to be a writer. Yeah I know that sounds bad. Where I come from in north east Ohio saying shit like that would pretty much be the beginning of a lifetime of ‘here comes the queer’ looks followed by some smart ass comment like, “Hey, it’s Ernest fucking Hemingfag.” You might as well announce you wanted to take up ballet or puppeteering. That’s the Buckeye State for ya. But this was Ann Arbor Michigan — filthy with ‘writers’ and ‘artists’ and yoga instructors and one large ex-football player lumbering around nursing secret notions of writing a book.
Tending bar I’d seen enough dudes with a notebooks and ballpoints who professed to be writers as they sipped their sea breeze or dollar draft Old Style. Usually there was an arty chick in the vicinity with cool glasses and blue and pink striped hair, maybe a nose ring and of course the writer dude would drag thoughtfully from his clove cigarette as he declared he was working on a novel or finishing up a book of free verse poems. I wanted to bash his fucking head open. Remember this was Ann Arbor — ground zero for pretentious writer types and had I started bashing skulls whenever some poseur rambled on about Bukowski or the latest Alice Munro overly-long-boring short story in the New Yorker, well I woulda been knee deep in brains. I wanted to be a writer — not some jackass calling himself a writer.
I’d always been a reader — everything from Edgar Rice Burroughs’ John Carter from Mars series to the short stories of Raymond Carver and Flannery O’Connor. I wrote in secret — burning through books, looking for inspiration, waiting for that one book to come along shine a light on my ignorant ass. Then I found Barry Hannah’s Airships in this used bookstore I used to haunt on my off days. The book had plain cream colored cover and a blurb from Philip Roth — that was all I needed. I took the book home, expecting to poke through a story or two in between novels. Instead I read all twenty stories in one shot. At the time I was working as a carpenter rehabbing old buildings. I took “Airships” to the jobsite and pestered my long haired sheet-rocking, telling him he had to read it. Again, this was Ann Arbor — not only did some sheet rockers read, they were also working their way toward PHDs in philosophy, listened to Uncle Tupelo, studied Shorin-Ryu karate and could wax on enthusiastically about Chateauneuf-du-Papes or how a sawed off shovel handle was just about the best personal defense a dude could have should he meet with random violence. We were versatile motherfuckers back then. Needless to say Hannah’s sentences poleaxed said sheet rocking buddy. For days we walked around the job-site, throwing up walls, quoting sentences from the book — “I want to rip her arm off. I want to sleep in her uterus with my foot hanging out.” Or “One had to engage himself like suck’s revenge with a horn.” And, “I’m neutral. I wear sharp clothes and everybody thinks I’m a fag, though it’s not true. The truth is I’m not all that crazy about Donna, that’s all, and I tend be sissy of voice. Never had a chance otherwise — raised by a dreadfully vocal old aunt after my parents were killed by vicious homosexuals in Panama City. Further, I am fat. I’ve got fat ankles going into my suede boots.” If that don’t punch out the lights and make you wanna snap your pen, I can’t help you. You and me, well, we will never be friends and there is a good chance we may even tussle over philosophical differences. Have you felt the snap of a sawed off shovel handle? I believe that when it’s all over we are naught but a collection of opinions. Hannah’s sentences will, I imagine, scroll through my thoughts until I draw my last breathe. Airships didn’t change my life, it rewired my idea of the sentence and what a short story could and should do.
If you wanna write you got have that one writer and that one book that you look to top every time you staple your nuts to the desk chair. Airships is that book for me. Warning: Hannah’s snarling sentences will make you feel woefully inadequate, whipped, mentally halt and lame and just plain ordinary. And that’s a good thing. Airships is that vicious tuning fork of a book, each story just fucking daring you to figure out what makes it tick. I’ve read it over and over these past twenty years and I still have no fucking idea how Barry Hannah does it. I’m just glad he did. I’d like to think that books like this still matter — the way it matters that polar bears still creep ice floes looking to lunch on seals. But it pains me to go into what I consider to be good bookstores and not find a single copy of Airships or any of Barry Hannah’s work for that matter. An absence like that makes me wonder if we aren’t living in the end of days.
P.S. — Don’t get me going about his novel Ray — just read it. And while you’re at it check out Charles Portis.