The eternal boy lives in the work.
Barry Hannah died on March 1, 2010. Born in Meridian, Mississippi, he was the author of Airships, Ray, Bats Out of Hell, High Lonesome, among many other novels and story collections. A teacher and mentor, Hannah taught creative writing for nearly thirty years at the University of Mississippi. He was a longtime contributor to The Oxford American; his short story “The Spy of Loog Root” appeared in the first issue of the magazine in 1992. Here, students, fans, and friends reflect on Hannah and his work. For more, see Issue #72 of the magazine.
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.
He was so sweet to me. I only knew the dear, tender Barry. He was always worried over my love life—he didn’t like my choices. He was big on setups. Once he described the fellow as: “A beautiful person. A recovering criminal. He may have robbed a bank….” Another time it was the writer Wells Tower. Sitting on the balcony of City Grocery, he would point to lawyers walking below: “How ’bout that one? I bet he makes the bucks!”
He knew a lot about love. Once, in class, he told us: “I went to Catholic school. I thought women really wore chastity belts.”
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
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.”
Art by James O'Brien.