Sunday, January 29, 2017

"Water Liars" (1978)

Read story by Barry Hannah online.

When a story is as short as this one by Barry Hannah—four pages—it's going to rely on various tricks to get over. There's not really time or space to develop a narrative or characters. "Water Liars" has a ringing, charming, and distinctive voice. The first sentence: "When I am run down and flocked around by the world, I go down to Farte Cove off the Yazoo River and take my beer to the end of the pier where the old liars are still snapping and wheezing at one another." The sing-songy rhyming foreshadows and signifies the first-person narrator, who is impoverished and vaguely dissolute. His story here is that he is at loose ends since he and his wife belatedly exchanged sexual histories. He is unexplainably disturbed to realize his wife had lovers, affairs, and sex before she knew him. He knows it's indefensible, makes no rational sense—of course she knew others before she knew him. So that's the narrator. The "water liars" of the title, the old men on the pier who swap exaggerations, appear to be something like his analogue, an externalization of his interior. This looks even more likely when one of the old men tells a story that bothers everyone. "He'd told the truth," Hannah explains it. They are angry with him and want him to leave. Along the way in this very short story, the language is compact and glistening, broken out into short sections separated by line breaks, just a few paragraphs each. So the narrative is thus also shattered, literally and figuratively. It's a pretty good trick, making it a pleasure (if baffling) to read, but for me I think it's a little too tricky. It's more like a poem, an assembly of images within language that doesn't exactly yield up meaning, not least because it yields it up so many wanton ways, not one of them direct. The narrator is not likable, and the old guys feel more like talking symbols than people. A Greek chorus of some kind—Hannah is at pains to note the discontinuities of the people on the pier. "The lineup is always different, because they're always dying out or succumbing to constipation, etc." (which is only the second sentence in the story). It's probably a good classroom exercise, short enough that many will likely read it, and full of a hundred ambiguities you could chew over in the space of an hour. As much as I like the language—and the brevity—this story leaves me a little cold. It's too smug, and it's too hard. I suspect in my heart there's actually very little here.

American Short Story Masterpieces, ed. Raymond Carver and Tom Jenks

Airships by Barry Hannah

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