‘Testimony of Pilot’ by Barry Hannah

Barry Hannah was born in Meridian, Mississippi in 1942
I probably could have picked any Barry Hannah story for this anthology, and especially any story from his excellent collection Airships, but I chose his long story ‘Testimony of Pilot’ because it’s always stuck with me. The story captures the development of friendships and rivalries between the narrator William Hawley and an oddball named Ard Quadberry.
They first meet when Hawley and a buddy, in a strange attempt to get revenge on some drunk men who they spied killing a hog with an ax, mistakenly attack Quadberry’s house with an improvised mortar loaded with flashlight batteries. Quadberry emerges, saxophone in hand, telling them to stop (Quadberry’s dad, a professor at the local college, is suffering a “headache from indiscretion”). The attackers agree to retreat if Quadberry plays his sax for them. Hawley is impressed (despite thinking there was “too much desperate oralness” in preparing the reed), but his buddy declares that Quad’s playing “sounded like a duck. Like a girl duck.” As Quadberry leaves, they toss M-80 firecrackers at him, permanently scarring his face.
Thus begins a story that captures the inherent contradictions of male friendship, the push-pull of affection and rivalry that simultaneously connects and disconnects best friends. ‘Testimony of Pilot’ follows that friendship through a tragic trajectory, although, like most of Hannah’s work, it’s very, very funny in its sadness. Hawley and Quadberry, quite literally, make beautiful music together playing in a series of bands over the years. In the story’s most memorable sequence, they perform a devastating version of Ravel’s Bolero led by Quadberry’s horn (and not, as one familiar with the piece might imagine, Hawley’s drums). Quadberry becomes a Navy pilot, and leaves to fight in Vietnam, offering the cryptic statement to an old girlfriend: “I am a dragon. America the beautiful, like you will never know.” I still don’t know what it means, but I think about it every now and then.

First published in Airships, Knopf, 1978

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