Analysis of Barry Hannah’s “Water Liars”

by Nick

Airships begins with Hannah’s most famous short story, Water Liars. The day after his thirty-third birthday, our protagonist learns that his wife had been lying about her sexual history and reveals that her and her husband’s histories are “exactly equal” (4). The main character goes fishing with a friend to get over it. Like most writer from the American South, Hannah brings Christianity into his work either as a current that runs through the story, or as a detail lending a note of authenticity to Hannah’s chosen place. Here’s it’s a mixture of both. The main character points out that Jesus of Nazareth died at thirty-three, and that the speaker “had a sense of being Jesus and coming to something decided in [my] life” (3). The religious parallels continue when he says “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” (4). This quotation throws doubt onto the Christian narrative our speaker tries foisting on himself the comparison to Jesus. After all, “there were supposed to be virgins” [italics mine]. His Christian narrative needs a figure suggesting Mary the Mother of Jesus. According to Christianity, Mary conceived and birthed Jesus without sexual intercourse. Our protagonist uses this as a way to try and elevate his wife, to make her more in touch with the divine and morally clean. The preconceived notions here are standard patriarchal fare, like the idea that sex is immoral, especially for women, or that our protagonist is upset that he wasn’t the first and only one to have sex with his wife. This snippet exposes some of the cracks in the speaker’s narrative while simultaneously undermining the patriarchal control forwarded by fundamentalist Christianity. But I want to focus more on Hannah’s use of Christian and religious imagery to handle the specificities of the story, rather than expand it into cultural critique.

The Christ comparisons go further than hopeful thinking. The entire story concerns our protagonist coming to terms with the past, his and his wife’s past. In Christianity, Jesus of Nazareth is viewed as a sacrifice for humanity’s past sins against God. The story evokes the iconic image of Jesus’ sacrificial death in its last sentence “We were both crucified by the truth” (7). This appears after our protagonist and his friend arrive at the lake and hear a true story among the old men who drink on the pier and tell lies all night. “[A] new younger man” (6) tells the story of how he and a friend went fishing on the lake and started to hear strange noises. They thought it might be Yazoo, an Indian king who supposedly haunts the lake, but it turned out to be the storyteller’s high school daughter having sex with an older man. One old man sums up all the others’ responses quite well, “My Gawd, that’s awful,’ said the old geezer by the rail. ‘Is that the truth? I wouldn’t’ve told that. That’s terrible” (6). In contrast, our protagonist likes this man and bonds with him the whole weekend. This storyteller is the other man “crucified by the truth” (7) in the final sentence. This reveal ties in with the metaphysical narratives referred to throughout the story.

In addition to the imagery pertaining to Jesus, Water Liars also contains references to ghosts, especially king Yazoo. Of course this summons up Flannery O’Connor’s famous quote “the South is hardly Christ-centered, it is most certainly Christ-haunted.” Like the Biblical imagery, these ghosts suggest our protagonist’s past and his wife’s hidden sexual history. Farte Cove, the lake’s location provides both stories about ghosts and the partying and sexual escapades of local high school students. This pairing lends a metaphysical horror or potential harm that might come to these men if they dabble in their loved one’s, specifically their daughters and wives affairs. Our protagonist points out the double standard that his own history doesn’t bother him or his wife, but her sexual experiences bother him (4). More interesting is the way the story trespasses against Christianity’s dogma that mostly deals in absolutes and rigid descriptions. After all, both the protagonist and the man who upsets the crowd at the pier become Christ martyred by reality. This blends the nature oriented, less exclusive, and decisive teachings displayed in the Native American religious traditions with the more ideological and categorical driven patterns of thought in Christianity. I’ve wrestled with this story for a long time now and it seems I’m interested in different things each time I write about it. Thoughts?