Saturday, March 19, 2011

Barry Hannah remembered: Oxford American's new issue

Barry Hannah left a South that is a big tent of intellect and emotion, a writer's paradise made half of bright-light sideshow and half shadow. Looking away from the spotlight that Hannah put on his characters a reader would miss the intent of Hannah's writing. His fiction, like McCullers', O'Connor's, and Faukner's, was not about external action as much as personal observation. Family, neighborhood, and society provide the setting; the force of individual need is the source of tension in many of his stories.

The Oxford American has devoted much of its current issue to Barry Hannah's work and legacy. There is a video of Hannah riding around his old neighborhood in Tuscaloosa discussing a writer's love, work, and life that will disabuse any potential author's romantic ideas of writing. Fittingly there is also a wonderful cross-section of reactions, memories of Hannah's own history, ranging in tone from contributions by his university students to professional compatriots.

Here are just three representative samples. For more there is the Oxford American website, worth a browse if only to see what happens in America's literary "fly-over country" far from the influence of the New Yorker and its offspring.

There was a puncturing quality to Barry’s zingers, darts that pop the overblown balloon and send it, whining and deflated, on its pitiable trajectory. I saw this at Oxford restaurants, on panels at the Sewanee Writers’ Conference, and, most appreciated where most needed, in the English Department faculty meetings at the University of Mississippi, where we were colleagues. I remember several young hot-shot critics were attempting to amp up the introductory class for new grad students.

“We need more investiture in critical theory which assumes apprenticeship more than it does doctrinal or methodological instruction,” said one.

“Yes,” agreed another, “but choosing texts and films”—

(Here a snort from Barry, who read books, watched movies)

—“that are not comparatist but destabilize the traditional concept of literature as an isolatable aesthetic object.”

“Agreed,” added a third, “privileging the historicity of such discourses and the cultural phenomena they set out to investigate. Of course, this reenvisioned course deserves a new name.”

The critics paused, thinking of a course designation worthy.

Barry broke the silence. “How about calling it, ‘The Death of Joy as We Know It’?”

Whooosh. I miss having someone around who could do that. (Beth Ann Fennelly)

Barry Hannah, smiling (University of Louisiana, Monroe)

The Friday before Barry passed away, he came into Square Books. He got off his motorcycle wearing his oxygen tank and smoking a cigarette. Someone asked him about the upcoming book conference that was dedicated to him. He smiled and said, “Don’t go to that. It’ll be boring.” Then, without missing a beat said, “Did y’all hear about that woman trainer who was drowned by the killer whale? Who are these people? They’re called killer whales.” That weekend he bought Snuggies for him and Susan (he called them “snugglies”) and he went to play Xbox somewhere because he was thinking about getting one. My favorite line of Barry’s from his class was “Samuel Beckett was never really the same after he got stabbed by that pimp.” (Michael Bible)

One day in the late ’90s, I hear Barry Hannah is going to give a reading at the Birmingham Museum of Art, and as a gift to myself, I traded bar shifts with a pal, and pulled out a suit I had bought for a wedding a year back. I hate a suit more than about anything and probably won’t wear another until I’m in a casket, but the occasion was special enough. When I got to the museum, I was surprised at the number of people there.

Knowing a little of the history, the times in Tuscaloosa when he was fond of drunkenness and firearms, the layer of tension and quick violence in his stories, I was unprepared for the small, kind, almost Asian-looking gentleman behind the podium, reading one of his works in a far too genial tone for my liking, and too “Southern,” as well, which is a fucked up thing for me to say, because I loved that inherent Southernness in his stories, but I fully expected him to hide his accent while still being a proud Southerner, like me at the time. I wasn’t deflated, he was still a hero. And the story shone through.

After the reading, Hannah shuffled over to a little table and sat down as nearly everyone there formed a line to meet him and have a book or two signed. I brought Bats Out of Hell, and stood near the back, watching as this man graciously had conversation after conversation, earnest in his interest in every person that came before him, gregarious, talkative, funny as all hell, as per usual. I waited, in my suit, feeling kind of awkward at the whole thing, and trying to come up with something clever and deep to say, such as how had it not been for him and Maker’s Mark whiskey, I’d most likely have committed some great hurt upon myself or other such nonsense.

And then my turn in line came. And I approached, and Hannah went ghostly pale. He stuttered and looked visibly shaken. I thought to my self, “What piss is this? I have a suit on for God’s sake!” I must have seemed some past demon or hateful person to him, as all his geniality disappeared and he mumbled something about who to sign to. I never expected this, from witnessing everyone in front of me, and I lost my nerve and jabbered back at him, “Just to Scott, just to Scott.” And I walked away feeling stupid and almost scorned. I’d give anything to know what my face brought up that night for him. Nonetheless, I got to meet my favorite author. In a goddamned suit. (
Scott Howdeshell)

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