Heart Radical: The Strange, True Flight of Airships

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Barry Hannah passed away Monday, March 1, 2010. He was 67 and died of natural causes. The precarious state of his health — he’d battled cancer for some years — was a matter of ongoing concern amongst his wide circle of friends and admirers. Hannah was also one of those writers about whom other writers like to tell tales. The time Barry got drunk and shot up a car, the time Barry pulled out a revolver in class, and so on and so forth. It was all part of the persona imposed upon him by those wanted proximity to his freakish literary gifts. He wrote like a Southern mad man so he had to be a Southern mad man.

Here’s what I remember: watching Hannah read a short story and his having to stop for a few seconds, toward the end, because the story was about an old friend who’d since passed. He began to weep, then he apologized and explained that he hadn’t remembered exactly what was in the story, nor expected to feel the way he did.

I can’t think of a deeper testament to him, or his work.

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Heart Radical: The Strange, True Flight of Airships

I can’t remember the particulars, how it started with Barry Hannah. I’m pretty sure I was in grad school, offending everyone in sight, turning my tender ambition at words into an endless feud.

Nothing made much sense. I lived in the South (how had I wound up in the South?) in a crappy carriage house with a mattress on the floor. I cooked quesadillas over an open gas flame and drank Cherry Coke from the big bottle. From time to time, a lady spent the night, but they always smelled the loneliness and I couldn’t bring myself to beg. My stories were great gray puddles of blah.

I was working so hard at being a laudable young writer, but no one was giving me any eggs. I wasn’t getting what I deserved. I was getting ripped off. So every day I sat there in that broiling carriage house, in a fog of grievance, pumping out B.O. and wondering when things were going to change.

Someone must have read the symptoms, or maybe I had the good sense to go to the library on my own – whatever the case, I wound up with a paperback of Airships, dating to 1979 and showing all of those years.

The first line I read was this:

“My head’s burning off and I got a heart about to bust out of my ribs.”

You’ll have to remember that this was in grad school, where, by no exact fault of anyone on the premises, the herd was pushed (and pushed itself) in the direction of serious and subtle prose, where the high crime of any workshop was overt emotionalism, the abject declaration that what we were up to mattered.

So there was Barry Hannah and his weird, scampering blood, leaping against all that.

“I got to be a man again,” he wrote.

And: “When it comes off, I see she’s got great humpers in her bra.”

And: “Everyone is getting crazier on the craziness of simply being too far from home for decent return.”

He was a guy in whose presence I could actually, finally, you know, breathe. It didn’t matter that his stories were loose and Southern and baroque – things I would never be – only that they were authentic. And this wasn’t because of his great bulging brain (like Faulkner) or his macho discipline (like Hemingway). It was because he used language to express extreme emotional states with such naked precision. Or maybe it would be more accurate to say that his extreme emotional states summoned the language.

I knew this much: his insides were soft and red, like a tomato. It was that way for both of us. Only he was able, somehow, to make gorgeous frescoes where I made only pulp.

I read Airships chronically, maybe a dozen times, and each time I wanted to lick the pages. Those stories! All full of death and sex and grotesque types chewing to the end of their tethers. What kind of world was this? Why, in the face of such pain and humiliation, did I want never to leave them?

I can remember the long August days of nothing, the dumb, stoned parties, my idiot heart clutching at anyone who came close and driving them off. I was living in the Bible. Everything was wrath and betrayal. I took it all twice as hard. I shaved my head. I wanted to look like the freak I was.

There was one party in particular, later on, in Autumn. This was the night I was supposed to consummate matters with my love interest, a fraudulent poet with a nice big caboose. The energy between us was deep and crazy. We were going to electrocute one another with desire. We were going to bleed the same blood.

But before I could touch her in any real way, she turned away and fled into the night and another friend, just about to dump me also, stared down at the concrete pilings of my porch and said, “Well, you know, you are kind of a train wreck.”

Everyone else left too, off to be happy and normal, to dream in placid colors, and I went inside my place and looked at the mess from the party, the beer bottle ashtrays and burnt tortillas and my ears were ringing with the hurt. I was disgusted with myself: my prophetic rage, my failure, my inability to feel less about the world.

Those were the nights I sought out Airships. I’d sit there and read a sentence like, “I’m going to die from love” and start crying. And what’s strange is that it felt so good to cry, there was a kind of joy in it, because all feeling is joy, because the capacity for feeling is the great unstated human achievement and because somewhere, off in the distance, I could see that my capacity to feel wasn’t going to mess me up forever, and that someday, if I kept at it, the writing thing, if kept myself open to the lashings of the world, the true, brutal hurt of the place, I might start to get somewhere.

So that’s what Airships was about for me: coming out of hiding as an emotionalist. Realizing that, amid the vanities and elisions of the Southern literary tradition, there was a deep, Christian possibility: that confession might actually cure, that love might act as a revolutionary force, that the chaos of one’s past and present, if fully experienced, might portend some glowing future.

All of which sounds hopelessly lofty. All I mean is that reading the guy made me a more forgiving person.

There’s room in this world for all of us freaks.

***

This is a Rumpus Reprint and was published originally in (Not That You Asked).


Steve Almond's new book Against Football will be out just in time for the NFL season. Gulp. More from this author →