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When Barry Hannah passed away following a heart attack in March 2010 at the age of 67, the world lost a literary artist whose work was as enlightening to some readers as it was baffling to others. To the late Truman Capote, Hannah was “the maddest writer in the U.S.A.” To Hunter S. Thompson, Hannah “should not be in front of young people. And perhaps he should be in a cage.” More traditional praise came from Jim Harrison who, when reviewing Hannah’s debut novel, Geronimo Rex, said Hannah was “brilliantly drunk with words.” Author Wells Tower called him “the most thrilling, vital stylist in American fiction. He wouldn’t leave a sentence alone until he’d electrified every word with this outrageous wit and devilish music.” John Grisham, whose work enjoys the kind of commercial success that Hannah never achieved, said “He was always looking for the next outrageous character, outrageous scene, and he was never satisfied with the mundane, even stylistically. He was just fearless.”

 

He born April 23, 1942 in Meridian, Mississippi into a family of middle class Protestants that was “heavy on the Baptists from my mother’s side.” The influence of the fire and brimstone style of preaching would find its way into his later work through characters who are concerned with guilt, atonement, and what he called “seeking a mission for their lives.”

 

Hannah was an imaginative child out of necessity. “We made our own fun,” he recalled in 1993. “We always imagined fun. There was no Nintendo, and you had to make your own games. Part of it was telling stories. That’s what I loved: to make up stories.”

 

If he started telling stories only to amuse himself and his friends, he soon realized there were rewards to be had for being creative. In third grade, he had a teacher who had been trained in psychology at Harvard. “I don’t know why we got her,” he said, “but she loved imagination. She gave me credit for doing stories and the others were doing kind of straight work. That was radical for Mississippi in the ‘50s.” Later, a high school teacher, Mrs. Black, “made poetry real and good.”

 

He entered Mississippi College in Clinton as a pre-med student, but switched to literature. Hannah edited the Arrowhead, the university’s literary magazine and earned a Bachelor of Arts in 1964. Moving on to the University of Arkansas, he got his Masters and became a committed writer. A story he wrote was published in an anthology of the best college writing, and shortly afterward, he wrote “Mother Rooney Unscrolls the Heart,” a short story that he considered his “first really good story. I was about twenty-three. It really lit up for me. I don’t really care what folks think of it now, but “Mother Rooney” was a springboard to the rest of my creative life.”

 

Hannah also participated in writer’s workshops. “I don’t know if the workshop is good for everybody, but I needed the discipline.” Like most writers, Hannah’s degrees in literature led to teaching jobs which proved a necessity for survival, but he noted, “The short fiction form that I teach is a great format for fine classroom conversation about the art. My writing has always been enhanced by my teaching.”

 

Among his admirers was Gordon Lish, an editor at Esquire where his work soon found a home. Hannah revered the magazine and recalled that finding his way into its pages was “like shooting for something and making the team.”

 

His first book, Geronimo Rex, published in 1972, was “about growing up in the South during the Civil Rights era, Elvis - the adventures of a trumpet man who fails and finds himself in trouble with some right wing folks about town.” It won the William Faulkner Prize and was nominated for a National Book Award. “I’m glad it was liked so much,” he said.

 

Words like “grotesque” are often used to describe Hannah’s work. He’s been compared to Faulkner, but also to David Lynch, the director of such eccentric films as Eraserhead and the Twin Peaks TV series. His stories were frequently marked by violence and characters driven by madness and lust.

 

“We stand in awe of him,” novelist Richard Ford said. “There’s an electricity that galvanizes his sentences and connects one word to the next that basically creates a whole new syntax. He just completely rejiggered everything that the term South calls to mind.”

 

Hannah was a “Southern” writer, but didn’t particularly appreciate what that tag suggests. “Often,” he said, “it’s just shorthand for ‘Don’t bother reading this because it’s only porches and banjos.”

 

A second, less successful novel, Nightwatchmen, followed in 1973, but 1980's Ray earned critical praise and represented a breakthrough of sorts. He may not have been famous, but he was becoming known, and attracting an appreciative audience that included film director Robert Altman.

 

“He’s one of the few who actually likes literature in Hollywood,” Hannah said of the maverick auteur. “He paid me out of his own pocket for a script that was never produced. I’ll always be very thankful for him. He pulled me through some kind of dire months. I had no other work at the time.”

 

Like a lot of writers, Hannah battled the bottle. “The trouble with drinking, much as I hate to admit it,” he said, “is it helped the work. The first two drinks are always wonderfully liberating. You think better. You’re braver, and you’ll say anything.”

 

You’ll also do anything, and Hannah got himself fired from a teaching job at the University of Alabama after he brought a revolver to class and used it in a lecture about what he called Literature’s six movements. “But you see,” he explained, “all my heroes were alcoholics,” citing James Joyce, Ernest Hemingway, and William Faulkner as examples.

 

After finally giving up drinking in 1990, he produced what some consider his finest short story collection, 1993's Bats Out of Hell.

 

“It’s a book unlike any other I’ve written. My Dad had died. I knew he wouldn’t see it. I had quit drinking and I had been depressed from lack of chemicals, I guess. Couldn’t write. Couldn’t think. Then my father died. About two weeks later, just absolute liberation. I couldn’t stop writing for a year and a half. . . Maybe my Dad’s spirit entered me. I started believing more in hard work.”

 

Bats Out of Hell was followed in 1996 by the novel, High Lonesome and a nomination for the Pulitzer Prize.

 

Among the authors who Hannah admired were Cormac McCarthy. “It’s not just the language, although I can’t imagine loving his books without the special language. He’s one of the few writers who has a vision.” He also thought highly of Thomas McGuane. “He writes with a sort of mod Shakespearean elegance. That’s very rare - you lose readers if you write that well nowadays . . . Language has turned bland, democratic in a bad way, and very disposable.”

 

Still, Hannah was not a fan of writing that used language for its own sake. “I’ve been called post-modernist because I take a lot of freedom with form, but a post-modernist is generally provoking the audience into laughing at the whole idea of narrative, and satirizing in almost every sentence. I don’t like that. I like to believe a story. I don’t like to hear a coy writer behind it, manipulating things at all. So I’m very against the notion of hyper-fiction. I’m fairly traditional. I like the old-fashioned tale. I just like it told with a certain sensibility that may employ words you don’t just hear on the street.”

 

Hannah also preferred short stories to novels. “I find almost every novel overwritten. And padded. I don’t like artificial devices pulling you through.” He believed that most novels over 300 pages in length needed editing. “My ideal novel is something like Camus’ The Stranger. I could not leave my chair. I couldn’t get up. I remember that power.”

 

Still, Hannah was surprised that he was a writer whose work many found inaccessible.

 

“That always baffles me, that my work is considered difficult,” he said. “I’m for utmost clarity. . . I have no patience for writers who are deliberately inaccessible. That probably turns away a lot of people. There’s a bit too much arrogance connected with obscurity in the academic world. I was brokenhearted to hear people call me difficult. I always intended to be light and open, but I suppose I misjudged the American audience.”

 

Then again, maybe he judged them too accurately. He admitted that anger may have been one of his motivations to write. “Littleness, bullies, commercialism - the standard enemies of the bohemian are still mine. I don’t like to see my country consumed by big money in everything. I’m tired of watching magazine after magazine coming out with Madonna or another semi-talented millionaire’s face. The face or the image, I much resist. So there’s a lot of anger.”

 

He had a clear idea of the writer’s role in life. “With CNN around, everybody knows exactly the same things,” he said. The writer’s challenge is to give his readers an experience that can’t be duplicated in movies, on TV, in paintings, or in music.

 

It’s something Hannah never failed to do.



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