Though this collection contains a variety of stories, from Civil War story to science fiction, they all approach similar themes of American (and southern) masculinity, war, and our ability to connect. The ways in which many of these stories reflect back on the past, and illustrate the wonderful Faulknerian idea that the past is always with us, remind me not only of Faulkner but of Roth, too, in the way that so many of these stories show men trying to navigate the present while the past is always with them.
“Midnight and I’m Not Famous Yet” is a great example of this, as a Vietnam War story about Bobby Smith, a young American soldier from Mississippi who encounters his old classmate, Tubby Wooten while on patrol one evening. Tubby’s photographs of home—and in particular, one of Mississippi golfer White Whitelaw, cuts through Bobby’s bravado and pierces his heart, a wound made deeper with Tubby’s death while with Bobby’s platoon. The juxtaposition of Vietnam stories with those set during the Civil War provide an interesting commentary on the similarities of the two conflicts: when a soldier in “Knowing He Was Not My Kind Yet I Followed” says, “We are not defending our beloved Dixie anymore. We’re just bandits and maniacal” (145), his sentiment could just as easily be felt by Bobby Smith.
Though a few of the stories have female protagonists, the strongest pieces in the collection are those which follow male protagonists engaged in various kinds of battles. One of the most recurrent symbols throughout the novel is the figure or specter of Jeb Stuart, the flamboyant Civil War general who was celebrated for much of the war for his daring cavalry strategies, but whose failure to convey intelligence led to the Confederacy’s defeat at Gettysburg. Stuart functions in a couple of ways in this collection: not only does he represent the long shadow which the Civil War continues to cast over the South, but he also represents a certain kind of futility in life, that flamboyant victories in the past can be overshadowed by today’s defeat. Hannah often writes about southern men who are at the moment of facing their first defeat, whether by women or in the eyes of other men.
Hannah’s biggest strength to me is his prose style. Though he writes in a rather straight-ahead narrative style, his sense of language combined with his darkly comedic view of the South specifically and people in general. In “Love Too Long,” for example, the narrator tries to figure out how to survive his wife’s infidelities by thinking, “Maybe I need to go to church, I said to myself. I can’t stand this alone. I wished I was Jesus. Somebody who never drank or wanted nooky. Or knew Jane” (12). Or in “Water Liars,” another character deals with his own wife’s sexual past (not even infidelity, but the idea that he wasn’t her first): “My sense of the past is vivid and slow. I hear every sign and see every shadow…there is a blurred nostalgia women have that men don’t” (4).
Normally, this kind of romanticized misogyny (my term for this sense of obsession which some straight male authors have about women, which claims to be so obsessed with the wonder that is woman—an obsession which is usually unrequited, frustrated, or damned—that romanticization turns into objectification, and they cease to think of women as people, and can only see them as symbols (a process which I usually identify as rather narcissistic and immature))—normally this stance gets on my nerves, because of the misogynistic tones it often has. However, this collection by Hannah doesn’t quite have that effect on me—it comes close at times, but the characters’ primary engagements are with the past than in each other, and how to live up to the impossible standards set by the Southern ideal and the American dream.