UNTIL NOW, EXCEPT to readers of Esquire and a few periodicals of rather limited circulation, Barry Hannah has been known as an author of novels - particularly a widely acclaimed first novel, Geronimo Rex . His first collection of short stories - mostly brief, fragmentary works in the new, somewhat surreal style whose standard bearer is Donald Barthelme - presents a kind of writing closer to lyric poetry than to the novel: a mood, an atmosphere, a few words joined together in a coupling that seems predestined; symbols and absurdities, a psychological quirk sharply observed, a delicately poised verbal question mark.
And above all, voices. "I never knew what his real voice was, he had so many," the teller of one story says about its subject. Hannah has many vocies, too - most of these stories are short first-person narratives - but the basic one is that of a Southern male in his twenties or early thirties, slightly wide-eyed and questioning at the curious ways the world operates and sometimes desperate to escape from its inexorable processes.
Behind that voice, which is evidently Hannah's (or, more precisely, Hannah's as best he can fix it on paper), there are a myriad of others recurring again and again. The voices of old men sitting at the pier in a low-cost fishing resort, telling lies about their past because only an invented past can give meaning to their present. The voices of young men at war, repelled and attracted by the beautiful horror of killing. The voices of survivors in some future time after a partially understood ecological disaster has turned people into marauders and cannibals. The voices of neurotics who hope that their intricately convoluted and self-imposed agonies will make them interesting. The voice of a star athlete whose driving force is Oedipal hatred. The voices of the physically beautiful adults with the brains of children, who are perhaps the happiest people in these stories.
Clearly, we have come along way from that literary monstrosity of the past, the well made short story a form so cut-and-dried that you could actually learn to write one successfully in books or mail-order courses on how to write. Television has dried up the other consumer markets for this commodity, though it has not absorbed most of the talents. If O. Henry had been around in recent years, doing his thing in his old style, he would have done a lot of writing for Mary Tyler Moore - and reached a lot of the people who once would have been reading Collier's or The Saturday Evening Post .
With their new freedom (nothing left to lose), has come an opportunity for writers of genius and a terrifying void for those of mere skill in the short-story form. There are no more rules about length, style, structure or content; the only rule is that the reader should be surprised, delighted, enlightened on every page and that it should be considerably shorter than a novel. On this tabula rasa., the writer is free to emblazon the riches of his soul, if he has any.
Hannah has plenty, wrapped in a virtuoso prose style and a wealth of symbols. The airships of the book's title recur frequently in the text as a symbol of power and escape, but even more frequent is the symbol of water, cleansing and destructive. Some of the book's form is based on the interaction of these symbols, and even more on the polarity of the two wars central in the author's consciousness - explicity linked in one story - Vietnam and the Civil War. The figure of Jeb Stuart rides through many of these stories - dashing, enigmatic, sometimes a little foolish - and in one of the best stories, "Midnight and I'm Not Famous Yet," it merges into the present in the figure of Li Dap, a North Vietnamese general who idolizes Stuart, imitates him in commanding his tank forces and comes to disaster: "He just wasn't very bright. He has half his army climbing around these bluffs, no artillery or air force with them, and it was New Year's Eve for our side. . . . All this hero needed was a plumed hat." Heroes pop up again and again; usually, they are not very bright.
In one of the central episodes of the book, a Confederate soldier goes to Stuart's tent for an appointment, finds the general asleep at his desk, a half-finished letter to his wife in front of him. Glancing at the letter, he sees a reference to "the shameful defeat at Gettysburg," and he reflects:
"I was shocked. I always thought we won at Gettysburg. All the fellows I knew thought we had won."
The not knowing, the search for a meaning, is of all motifs the most important one binding these stories together. All the fighting, the deception, the dashing about (which is what Jeb Stuart did best), the herculean efforts of soldiers, of athletes, of ordinary workers and pilots and tycoons resolves itself finally into an effort to understand, to find a meaning in the random events that fill these pages as they fill life itself. Winning is important, too, but it seems important only because it gives an opportunity to forge a meaning.
The trouble is that Hannah knows it is forged, as the most alert of his characters do. Below the coloful striving lurks the constant suspicion that it doesn't mean anything at all, and this is a message more of hope than of despair.