BATS OUT OF HELL by Barry Hannah (Houghton Mifflin: $22.95; 382 pp.). There’s a scene in Barry Hannah’s 1989 autobiographical novel “Boomerang” when Hannah, writing a screenplay at the Malibu mansion of director Robert Altman, realizes that he’s working in a beautiful tower of Plexiglas with sea gulls flying overhead and the Pacific rolling in below. Squirming in discomfort at this “white man’s dream of peace,” Hannah quickly defiles it by turning on the radio: “I needed the music, the tinny loud music, to remind me of all the trouble in the world. . . . I could not accept Paradise. I had to drag in the bad music and the cigarettes.”
Hannah arguably does much the same in this collection of short stories, beginning each tale with humorous, colorfully painted character sketches, but then staining the landscape with pitch-black turns of plot. In “Hey, Have You Got a Cig, the Time, the News, My Face?,” a successful biographer who seems wryly amused that he has become “glib to the point of hackery,” impulsively drives to a military school, withdraws a Daisy air rifle, and begins “popping some young boys singly, aiming for the back of their necks and, if lucky, an ear.” In “A Christmas Thought,” a wandering Jew and Methodist, “deliberately feeling alien to the Yule season,” taunt “an old tattered half-Chinese Negro” they see near a Laundromat until the man exacts gruesome revenge.
Whether contemporary American fiction needs yet another set of stories to remind us of “all the trouble in the world” is debatable. But important distinctions must be drawn between Hannah’s violence and the kind seen in trendy novels like Bret Easton Ellis’ “American Psycho.” While Ellis’ Jekyll-and-Hyde protagonist inexplicably switches between blithe discussions of Ermenegildo Zegna fashions and zealous disemboweling of people, Hannah does something far more difficult: He shows why his characters have come to need their nihilistic anger--whether expressed in the angry gibes of the old fishermen in “High-Water Railers” or in the violence of metal-worshiping punks in “Allons Mes Enfants"--in order to survive.