“In Mississippi it is difficult to achieve a vista,” wrote the late laureate Hannah (Yonder Stands Your Orphan, 2001, etc.) of his native state. He was wrong: He provided some of the best vistas in American literature, as this collection of short fiction ably shows.
The early stories here, dating to the mid-1960s, show Hannah at his Faulknerian finest, writing small elegant tales in long sentences that loop and oxbow to rival Old Man River himself (a third of a representative sentence: “that is that part of his speech which I was able to hear persuaded me, for the jacking of the asses, the lament of the eunuchs, the cries of the lost, the general din of the vulgar in their ascent ahead were overpowering”). As the chronologically ordered collection progresses, the author’s sentences become shorter and punchier, though no less poetic: “The dead sit around us in their great hats, nude, yammering away nevertheless.” Hannah reveals early on a few recurring characters (the unfortunately named Farte family, for instance) and set themes, including a preoccupation with soldiers—the subject of his 1978 collection Airships—and particularly with soldiers who come into unfortunate play with civilians who often use them poorly. Throughout, no matter what the year, Hannah proves again and again his ability to compress whole lives into single paragraphs, as when in the title story he summarizes the soul of a librarian turned classicist deeply mistrustful of love and willfully self-sufficient (“Versed in her own degree in history and art, she was decorating the house”) and elsewhere writes admiringly of a woman who, in quite a feat down in bayou country, can out-drink any man and then get up promptly the next day to make the world turn.
With the caveat that a certain racial epithet still retains its power to shock here, an essential book for any library of Southern literature—and a welcome guide for students of writing as well.