Water Liars by Barry Hannah, 1978
The magic trick:
Highlighting a group of men’s different approaches to anxiety about women and sexual possession
We start a week of Barry Hannah stories with one of his most famous, “Water Liars.” I have to admit I was a little disappointed. I guess I was expecting something a little more earth-shattering. It’s just another Gordon Lish-edited story about white guys talking about stuff where they expose themselves as being a little simple or unenlightened and the reader has to do all the heavy lifting to either redeem or condemn them. My back hurts.
Anyway, my negative first impressions aside, let’s break down what works here. Hannah has a collection of males who are all angsty about sex and female empowerment. The narrator admits his situation and frustrations to the reader. Then we see a group of men talking. Most of them can’t get to the core of their anxiety. One man does, tells his story to the group and is roundly criticized for sharing such a graphic (read: honest) tale.
So, OK, even in the time it took to type that paragraph, my appreciation for this story has increased. There certainly is a lot of truth here. I do get a little tired of IKEA stories that came out of the Lish factory of the 1970s – here are the parts, assemble it yourself. But I can’t deny that “Water Liars” gets to an essential truth about men – particularly of a certain time and place – and their inability, or at least unwillingness, to come to terms with sex. And that’s quite a trick on Hannah’s part.
On the morning after my birthday party, during which I and my wife almost drowned in vodka cocktails, we both woke up to the making of a truth session about the lovers we’d had before we met each other. I had a mildly exciting and usual history, and she had about the same, which surprised me. For ten years she’d sworn I was the first. I could not believe her history was exactly equal with mine. It hurt me to think that in the era when there were supposed to be virgins she had allowed anyone but me, and so on.
I was dazed and exhilarated by this information for several weeks. Finally, it drove me crazy, and I came out to Farte Cove to rest, under the pretense of a fishing week with my chum Wyatt.
I’m still figuring out why I couldn’t handle it.
Subscribe to the Short Story Magic Tricks Monthly Newsletter to get the latest short story news, contests and fun.