A Year in Reading: Thomas Beckwith

December 7, 2013 | 2 books mentioned 4 min read

One of my strongest memories involves ducking behind a bush to avoid a patrolling MP. The year is 1998; I’m 10 years old. My friend and I are dueling with cap guns designed to look like Uzis. My friend, a native of Nebraska whose father works in the Army, shoots caps at me through skeletal bushes and over the hoods of cars. We battle our way through a parking lot, and as we do I construct a number of scenarios to explain why, despite our friendly history, we now want to maim each other with high-tech explosives and bullets. I tell myself I’m a young James Bond, hurled abruptly and senselessly into training. I’m a private in the Allied armies caught up in a skirmish in North Africa. I’m a CIA agent, tasked only with taking out “evil” in a faraway, suffocating jungle. I’m all of these things — that is, until my friend tackles me.

“What the hell?” I say. At this point I’m old enough that swears are less thrilling than routine. “What was that?”

“Don’t talk.” My friend gives a signal to follow. I comply, and as we crawl behind a bush and huddle side by side, it strikes me that this is the closest I’ll ever get to real warfare.

My friend says an MP on a road nearby staged firefights like ours as a kid. One day an eccentric soldier, unaware that his cap guns were toys, upheld the safety of his community by shooting the MP in the leg. Ever since that life-marring day, the MP walked with a limp, his gait a jarring reminder of the perils of play-acting too well. It fell to us to avoid him, my friend explained, because the MP “went ballistic” when he spotted young boys using cap guns. I didn’t know what that entailed, exactly, but I knew it was very bad, so I hid my gun under my T-shirt and prayed for the MP to stalk away.

I bring this up now because lately I’ve felt that it helped forge my taste in literature. Not the cap gun incident specifically, but the many incidents like it — I went to school on an Army base for several years, and I grew to believe my time there unavoidably skewed my perspective. To call Army kids your classmates, then as now, meant spending great balefuls of time with rural Heartlanders and Southerners. It meant having friends who blew whole weekends in paintball games with Vietnam vets. It meant that dumb kids brought hunting knives into school on a perilously regular basis. In a lot of ways, I was the odd man out back then, thanks largely to the fact that my parents were both academics, but my classmates often took precedence over the diktats of my tweedy home life. Even now, my parents like to tease me for using the word “dang” till I was 12.

coverIn other words, I was never quite able to reinvent myself as an East Coaster, which is probably why, earlier this year, I fell for Barry Hannah. In an interview published in 2009, Wells Tower wrote that Hannah “drives people to fanaticism,” a statement which ranks with “banned for obscenity” in the realm of powerful endorsements. (Same goes for his line that “any one of Hannah’s sentences picked at random holds more hope and joy than the entire self-help section at the O’Hare Barnes and Noble.”) I read these hosannas and picked up High Lonesome with an urgency reserved for grave injuries. Within the space of three pages, I could see Hannah’s talent for odd phrasing: a role in a college play requires much “dramatic amplitude;” a slacker confesses that “through [him] runs an inveterate refractoriness, almost a will to lose;” and a young boy complains with a juvenile bitterness about the ravings of a “turkey-throated aunt.” Nobody can dismiss these as novel deployments of well-trod constructions and ideas. Instead, they’re signals of a dizzying new dialect, the language of a nation-state of one.

coverAlthough High Lonesome had sold me, I knew it was a late-career production. I wanted to see if Hannah’s first collection would hit me as hard as its successor. Unlike High Lonesome, Airships consists of stories so short they rival Donald Barthelme’s for brevity. They’re not as dour as the stories in High Lonesome, and their plotlines are far more calamitous, but the stories in Airships are built with the same knack for joyfully addlepated wordplay. In “Testimony of Pilot,” a young boy, a “violent experimental chemist,” learns “the sulfur, potassium nitrate and charcoal mixture for gunpowder” before his 11th birthday. In “Quo Vadis, Smut?”, vigilantes drink a bottle of gin contaminated with bits of glass. We learn that the glass flakes “burn constantly but do not kill.” In “Return to Return,” a stroke victim coughs out “lengths” of phlegm, and when he later shows up in a vision coupled carnally with a character’s mother, he appears in a cemetery “so [the stroke victim] won’t have far to fall when he explodes with fornication, the old infantryman of lust.”

Everything I quoted here points to a mind that knows the grotesque when it sees it. For Barry Hannah, all human beings, regardless of their station, find themselves inevitably pitched into a battle at birth. His violence is key to why I find his fiction seductive. When I read him, he calls me back, to a time not long ago that nevertheless seems distant, when the people I hung around didn’t care a whit about prestige or the bull of the thinking class. Their fathers were off in Bosnia, and they didn’t need our crap. It’s fitting that Hannah’s vagrants express this better than I can:

There is not even such a thing as a personal soul in many countries. The souls were dead already waiting for Marx, all he was was the final announcement. I am dying for you, I have had hell so you may carry on. Love me, every breathing motherfucker around me. I give you my lungs and heart to eat thereof. I taste like a sword.

More from A Year in Reading 2013

Don’t miss: A Year in Reading 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005

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is a staff writer for The Millions. He lives in New York.

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