Jewish World Review
March 9, 2010
/ 23 Adar 5770
Barry Hannah Dead at 67
"The canned dream of the South is something I've resisted my entire career; it disgusts me. And being Southern isn't always a graceful adjective; it'll kill you sometimes. Often, it's shorthand for 'Don't bother reading this because it's just gonna be a lot of porches and banjos.' "
Barry Hannah, quoted in Garden and Gun magazine
"[W]hat interests novelists in these peculiar times, or at least this novelist, and what they are mainly good for, is not such large subjects as God, man and the world, but rather what he perceives as fault lines in the terrain, small clues that something strange is going on, a telltale sign here and there. … [S]ane people seem to him a little crazy and crazy people a little knowledgeable a little like the movie "The Body Snatchers," where everybody looks and acts normal, except that they are not but no one notices, except the poor novelist."
Walker Percy, "Signposts in a Strange Land"
It isn't often you turn the page to the obituaries and burst into one big, indecorous smile. After all, someone has just died. It's supposed to be a sad occasion, and indeed it is. The country and particularly this bountiful, blessed and more than slightly bizarre part of ithas just lost a master of the dwindling art of the short story. At the entirely too young age of 67. Though whenever we'd lost Barry Hannah would have been too soon.
But there was no repressing it. After a short sigh there came the widest grin. Because he was that kind of writer, Barry Hannah of Oxford, Fear and Laughter, Miss. The man not only brought the American short story, Southern Division, through the late 20th century and into the 21st, but he did it with such delight. And with some awful, knife-twisting truths, too.
There were times when, reading one of his stories, you just had to read a passage out loud to somebody, even if you had to phone an old friend in the middle of the night. And if you couldn't read it to somebody else, you'd just laugh yourself silly, or find yourself going Ye-e-e-s! As if you were affirming the preacher's message at a black church.
And then, in the next paragraph, you'd experience one of those shocks of recognition that paralyzes you all the way down to your toes. As when you open a book at a random page and read: "Since he had returned from Korea he and his wife lived in mutual disregard, which turned three times a month into animal passion then diminished on the sharp incline to hatred, at last collecting in time into silent equal fatigue."
And that's just the first sentence of one of his stories. ("Get Some Young" in his collection, "High Lonesome.") The man didn't let go. Like the best vintage from a small country, Barry Hannah was cherished at home and known abroad, at least by the cognoscenti. Or just by those who happened to have come across one of his stories in Esquire years ago, or a whole collection of them in a book you picked up in an airport somewhere, and that is now a tattered treasure on your shelf.
Naturally he professed in Mississippi at Ole Miss. In the heart of the heart of the South, or at least of the Southern language. One of his old students and admirers (but I repeat myself), was quoted saying of Hannah: "What struck me, what blew me away, was that this was a person writing like you would speak to someone if only you were much funnier, much smarter, much stranger."
Barry Hannah wrote like a barroom raconteur thinks he sounds: unforgettable, unpredictable, unmistakable. Delightful and scary. A Barry Hannah short story is a kind of artist's revenge on all the people in the world who can't see what a strange, medium-sublime place it is: how full of hope and hopelessness. But mainly the world he inhabited and reflected was confusing and incomplete. And he wasn't about to complete it for you, like some lesser, neater author tying up all the strings at the end of a best-seller with a sentimental conclusion you might find inside a Hallmark card. That wasn't his style, if he had a style at all. John Updike, the master himself, spoke of Hannah's "accelerating incoherence." But how else reflect his slice of American time, i.e., 1942-2010?
Naturally he drank. And gave it up. Again and again. He started wild and mellowed, but he stayed funny and startlingly wise. ("The old guys are me now, is the horror. I'll wander up and get registered and vote.")
The New York Times, bless its heart, called Barry Hannah's art "darkly comic." When to any Southerner, it's just realistic. At least if the Southerner is lucky enough to live in a part of the South that's still Southern instead of Atlanta or Dallas or some other extension of the all-engulfing and all-devouring North. Or, much worse, a too-perfect replica of the South. As in one of those awful short stories by a writer who sets out deliberately to be Southern. Even cute. You know, the kind of faux-South you find in the perfect magazine spread and that makes you want to shoot somebody. At least that would be bloody real.
The professional Southerner is the curse of the writing class. Barry Hannah never lost his amateur standing when he was writing. To lose him only a few years after the death of his fellow townsman in Oxford, writer and fireman Larry Brown (not necessarily in that order), comes as a double blow. Hannah and Brown shared a kind of dual monarchy of the modern Mississippi short story, the way Updike and Cheever did the American variety. And now Barry Hannah is gone, too. He leaves behind a grateful smile on our faces. And the wistful hope that even now the next Barry Hannah is about to come out of Mississippi, that inexhaustible well of the Southern word.
Wherever he is now, here's hoping Barry Hannah is still writing. May he rest in laughter and anguish, his twin media. Because when we join him, we'll probably want some good reading, heavenly or hellish.
Paul Greenberg Archives
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