Bats Out of Hell by Barry Hannah

Houghton Mifflin 1993 382 pp. 22.95

Copyright © Steven E. Alford


I don't know who is more intriguing, the hack biographer who rides around in his black Riviera shooting people at random with his air rifle, or the love-struck teenage bricklayer who has to pull the acupuncture needles out of his aging girlfriend's liver while his rival waits downstairs. Readers of Barry Hannah's amazing new collection of short stories, Bats Out of Hell may not agree with my choice of favorite characters, but they will be faced with a similar dilemma: when they begin nattering on to their friends about this book, where will they begin?

A native Mississippian who teaches in Oxford, Hannah, 49, has published both novels and short fiction. This collection, his tenth publication, will have new readers diving back into his previous works to enjoy some of the most cockeyed Southern inventiveness this side of Flannery O'Connor.

Hannah has rounded up a real crew here, from an ancient pier fisherman who passes uncertainly back and forth from memory to conversation; to a jazz trombonist drug addict whose embittered aunt buys him a Harley, the better with which to woo his trailer park fiancee; to a boy traumatized by the sight of his father being beaten by a salami as punishment for erasing a massive debt by winning at chess. Oh yes, and a letter from Elvis' mother to her imprisoned husband, Vernon, chastising him for not being a better father.

In addition to his inventiveness, Hannah doesn't describe characters, he tunnels into them, surprising the reader with a view from far, far within the character. I was five pages into "Two Things, Dimly, Were Going at Each Other" before I realized that I was living through a particularly convoluted day in the inner life of William Burroughs. I had to remind myself that the layabouts, fornicators, drunks and weasels in "Slow Times in a Long School" were from Hannah's imaginary high school reunion, not my own.

Hannah's Joycean experiments in dialect are less than successful, but amply compensated for elsewhere by his wonderfully crafted sentences, worthy of collecting. Listen:

"You could tell he spent much time on the weights, and had that prowling-gorilla bow in his arms Mestre had seen athletes of a certain class work for; a subclass of cave-era goons thrilled to be hunched meat."

"Much nodding again, sincere awe going around the shop like a monkey in a bow tie."

"His posture was still poor, though, having been curved over in search of the pavement all those years."

"Harold had pushed too far and I went sullen, out to his hopelessly square car, which looked even more like the grounded rocket of a very confused small nation."

"She is the sort who carries her catbird seat around with her."

"... a sentimental old fraud who'd authored one decent book a century ago when he was alive, then rode like a barnacle the esteem of the famous who suffered him the rest of his life, dropping names like frantic anchors in a storm of hackism and banality."

Like characters in a Coen brothers film, Hannah's characters leap from unpredictable crisis to insoluble dilemma, dumbfounded equally by soul-traumatizing doom and undeserved joy. Their motivations escape them, awakening well after the arrest-pregnancy-gunshot wound to awe-struck wonder at their hapless survival. Crazed Southern Gothic has found a home, and it's flying out of Oxford, Mississippi on a loud mean Harley like a bat out of hell.