Thursday, February 02, 2017

"Testimony of Pilot" (1978)

Story by Barry Hannah not available online.

This story by Barry Hannah, whose Airships collection was all the rage in 1978 as I recall, makes an interesting contrast to "Water Liars," which is in the collection edited by Raymond Carver. For one thing, it indicates the regard for Hannah that two different stories by him appear in two of the collections I'm looking at (so far, in this exercise, that has happened only with Ann Beattie and Carver). Even more interesting are the differences between the stories—"Water Liars" is short and dense with poetic effects whereas "Testimony of Pilot" (is that a New Testament pun?) is five times its size and possesses a powerful narrative current. Basically, "Testimony" is the study of an adolescent friendship whose reverberations have potential to last a lifetime. It's full of incidental detail expertly handled, notably the high school band to which the narrator and his friend, Arden Quadberry, are so dedicated. The narrator plays percussion and Quadberry plays the saxophone. As depicted, Quadberry is by far the best player in the band, and steps up in a crisis to help the school win a competition. Later he becomes a fighter pilot. Much of the friendship—or "connection" might be the better term, as the narrator and Quadberry are not friends for most of the story—is easily reduced to stereotypes of bullies and their victims. But Hannah hangs so much interesting detail over it that it's easily forgotten. Quadberry has a fierce dignity from his first appearance, and the narrator is dealt a harsh comeuppance, going deaf shortly after he graduates high school. In fact, he was already going deaf before that. But going deaf? Who thinks of that? There was something deeply affecting to me about the characters and their connection in this story, but I'm not sure I'm entirely on board yet with Hannah. It can feel like pro forma gothic Southern business with the biblical familiarities and grotesques and such. He seems to be working self-consciously as a Southern Writer, and with all my problems with Southern culture returning again here in the 21st century, maybe that's the rub. Be that as it may, this is a good story.

The Vintage Book of Contemporary American Short Stories, ed. Tobias Wolff

Airships by Barry Hannah

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