There's no particular point to Barry Hannah's skinny new novella or at least no point substantial enough to warrant more than passing examination, but "The Tennis Handsome" is not without its occasional if peculiar charms. Hannah is a wildly erratic writer whose worst work ("Nightwatchmen") is positively dreadful and whose best ("Airships," "Ray") is among the most interesting coming out of the South these days; "The Tennis Handsome" falls somewhere in between these two extremes.
Hannah is a leading practitioner of a style of southern fiction that can be characterized as the new grotesque, in which the outlandish, frightening and forbidden are to be found less frequently in appearance than in behavior. In the fiction of Hannah, like that of Harry Crews and James Whitehead, the dwarfs and invalids of Carson McCullers and Flannery O'Connor are replaced by raucous, boozy, womanizing males whose disagreeable amusements are intended to express their resentment over the faceless plasticity of the "New" South.
At its most effective, this admittedly minor genre has produced a handful of funny, angry, noisily energetic works of fiction: Crews' "Car" and "A Feast of Snakes" and Whitehead's "Joiner," in addition to "Airships" and "Ray." Like the fiction of such Northern counterparts as Thomas McGuane and Jim Harrison, these are essentially books about boys at play, though since the boys are grown-up, the play has a dangerous and desperate edge to it. But predictably, at their most offensive, these novels offer little except good-old-boy swagger, the mannered macho of nice middle-class writers who are determined to demonstrate that they can hoot and holler as if they were to the outhouse born.
"The Tennis Handsome" is an extremely thin book that derives with rather alarming directness from a couple of the short stories in "Airships." In one of the stories Hannah writes: "He sifted into Elaine's, drunk, Southern and insulting, but was ignored." In the novella: "He poured himself into Elaine's, drunk, Southern and insulting, but was ignored." Hannah spends much of his time in "The Tennis Handsome" reprinting or revising his earlier works, a practice that suggests nothing so much as self-indulgence and/or self-plagiarism.
Into the bargain there is more southern-fried misbehavior here than many readers of mildly refined sensibilities will be able to stomach: The central character, French Edward, a charismatic tennis player, makes a wealthy invalid pregnant; his sidekick, Baby Levaster, has an affair with Edward's mother, who previously had had one with her son's coach; a Vietnam veteran named Bobby Smith, who drifts quite inexplicably into the tale, has a passionate relationship with his aunt. Though Hannah makes a considerable effort to depict these and other women as individual human beings, most readers are going to suspect--and in my view rightly so--that they are merely receptacles for the libidinous energies of his rip-roaring Mississippi gentlemen.
But of course, because this is central to the good-old-boy genre, beneath the wild outrages committed by these rapscallions lurk gentle and troubled souls; this is the southern male variation on the whore with the heart of gold. These guys do things to their mommas and aunties down there in Vicksburg that they could never get away with in Poughkeepsie, but it's all in the service of a higher cause: They're looking for love and beauty and peace. They're troubled by the question that French Edward poses at a tennis match: "Why must we kill everything that is prettier than we are?" They want, like Bob Smith, "to preserve people and make up for some dead ones," and they can get downright gooey about it:
"The picture of French Edward about to hit that ball at Forest Hills was stuck in my head. There was such care in his eyes, and it was only a tennis ball, a . . . piece of store-bought bounce. But it was wonderful and nobody was being killed . . ."
That's about as far into the depths of profundity as Hannah seems capable of reaching; there's a certain amount of God-talk here ("It's God. The man is God, thought Levaster"), but the less said about that the better. Where Hannah is at his best is as a portraitist and satirist of the emerging, "Americanized" South. There's less of this in "The Tennis Handsome" than in "Ray," the tight anger of which is oddly amusing and fascinating, but there's enough to make it worthwhile for Hannah's admirers--among whom I am numbered, though often against my better judgment--to wade through all the sentimental posing and the calculatedly egregious behavior. CAPTION: Picture, Barry Hannah; copyright (c) by Karen Newsom