Riding shotgun with Barry Hannah.
Barry Hannah photograph by Mark Morrow.
Barry would ring me up and I’d haul ass over to his house, sometimes on my bicycle, sometimes driving, and help him get the TV to work right, play a little music with him, or search for his keys that he swore had to be within twelve feet of his person—oh, look here, the key is in the front pocket of your vest, right over where your heart is. That particular key started his silver Kawasaki Eliminator, a 125 that looked to me like a shrunken Harley. He bought it after plowing his Vulcan Classic into a street sign at ninety miles per hour one drizzling afternoon. Due to a malfunction, the throttle opened up full bore and stuck. Barry and his bike took off like bats out of hell, no doubt about it. He and his portable oxygen unit flew high and wide and he was battered in the fall, but the black eye and the scrapes were just “war scars, baby.” The 1500 was totaled. I drove the new bike home from the motorcycle store. Barry followed in his Jeep Grand Cherokee, and we parked the thing behind my house on Jackson Avenue, where it stayed for about a month until his wife found out.
Long, Last, Happy is populated with many wives and motorcycles, for wives and motorcycles do have a few joyous points in common, and Mr. Hannah was all about joy. Yet if happiness is the flip side of hell, the two poles mixed with him. He was the least lukewarm dude you were likely to meet. I once heard him refer to poet Gary Short as Gary Long. What I’m getting at is that the joys readers experience when reading Hannah’s fiction are at the cost of the hells he experienced in life. Some stories of Airships, of which nine of the classic twenty are included in Long, Last, Happy, were written during times of extreme emotional upheaval, immitigable hurts that would carry through in his fictions. Thank goodness for those hurts? No, but Mr. Hannah’s ability to transform them into works of art that will stick to the race until we are all annihilated, I take as a miracle.
Each of Hannah’s stories is a full-blown poem, an extraordinary event of diction and light, music and life. In addition to the stories from Airships, Long, Last, Happy includes a little-known early fiction, “Trek,” Hannah’s final four unpublished stories, as well as favorites from Captain Maximus, Bats Out of Hell, and High Lonesome. There’s “Testimony of Pilot,” with its two small boys with binoculars, one of them already a “violent experimental chemist,” shooting flashlight batteries from a makeshift pipe mortar. In “Fans,” the sharks devour balls of hamburger meat filled with razor blades. In the tender, steady pulse of youthful desire that is “Scandale d’Estime,” we see a woman in Klan regalia pedaling her stationary bicycle, the robe of her skirt tied up so that a man eating a watermelon can watch her “nether parts” in motion. I love the characters of Bean, Arden Pal, Lester Silk, Walthall, and Swanly, from “Get Some Young,” but Hannah’s stories are all so beloved that I suspect the first thing die-hard fans will do upon opening the book is check the contents for which of their personal favorites are missing. For me, this would include “Deaf and Dumb” from Airships, as well as “The Vision of Esther by Clem” and “The Spy of Loog Root” from Bats Out of Hell.
I’m glad, though, that the editors didn’t pack any more into the book. As it stands, it’s just the right size, not too bulky, and will direct newcomers to seek more treasures from the originals, and maybe then branch out into his novels. Barry once joked that he knew he’d made it when he saw his novel Yonder Stands Your Orphan for sale in an airport shop. He was so thrilled that he bought it.
But pain, both emotional and physical, gives these pages the weight of a millstone used to drown harlots and blackguards in the days of old. As a compendium of the human experience, the stories reveal the inner workings of lives in congress with emotions most of us wish to avoid altogether: obsessive guilt, self-disgust, loneliness, heartache, irredeemable failure, disappointment in one’s spouse, and the lusts and greed that seek remittal through rape, pillage, and revenge. Yet all of Hannah’s characters are us, their fits of rage and vileness also tempered by conscience and the desire to live well.
Take, for example, Everett Dan Ross. In “Hey, Have You Got a Cig, the Time, the News, My Face?” he is the story’s protagonist, a fifty-two-year-old hack biographer and father to a poet teacher fired from the state cow college for drunkenness and a fiery temper. Ross’s talent, in addition to shooting people with a Daisy air gun from the window of his Buick without detection, is to give significance to the insignificant people he writes about. That was one of Hannah’s talents, and he performed it so quickly and with such precision that none of his characters ever seem to be marginalized. Ross, witnessing his son’s band, “could look at the face and bald pate of the drummer, comprehending instantly his dope years and pubic sorriness, pushed on till damn near forty, no better on drums than any medical doctor on a given Sunday afternoon with the guys.” Throughout the story, Ross seeks atonement with his son, all the while suffering from the guilt of having been responsible for the deaths of eleven men mortared in combat due to an error in his judgment.
Barry called me his amanuensis, and as such I heard him talk a bit about his feelings on fathers and sons and beautiful women, heartache, football, stool softener, and Krystal hamburgers. On the day that Ole Miss beat Gainesville, 31–30, it happened that we were in Tuscaloosa. To celebrate the win, we drove around the town in his silver Chrysler, his pistol in its holster under the seat. He gave me the grand tour, and as I drove I videotaped him talking beside me, drinking a Budweiser tallboy (a rare treat to lessen the abiding pain), and smoking a USA, his brand. As we approached the green shack by the tracks where he wrote Ray, he said, “It was probably the saddest time in my life. I was estranged, you know, just gotten divorced—nothing but musical instruments. A whole band set up there. Drums.
“My heart was broken. I went out in the streets to see if Patricia would drive by and stop and forgive me and we’d get back together. But it was over.”
“You wanna get out and look at it?” I asked.
“No, I’m really too sad. That place was hell, it was really hell.”
“It’s a pretty house.”
“Yeah, it’s not bad. I kept it up, as a drunk will do. I even painted the floors and all, as crazy people do. I bought instruments for the band, ignored my bills. I never answered letters. I just let them stack up, you know? Didn’t pay income taxes for three years. It was just a awful strain. That was in Jimmy Carter’s day and the interest was twenty-one percent.
“Students lived over there. Some good-looking girls lived there. Drunks, speed freaks, nut cases. See up here there’s a beer bottle still out in the yard from somebody. Keepin’ up the tradition. But it’s humble, baby.”
Now Barry is gone, and missed by all, yet as I write this, Long, Last, Happy is being reviewed in all the major newspapers. It even prompted the Washington Post’s Michael Dirda—and one presumes other critics as well—to give Hannah’s work a long overdue read. Could it be that Barry Hannah’s death will prompt the sort of popularity that largely eluded him in life? His novels and shorts stories are on par, I believe, with works by Beckett, Hemingway, and Camus, writers he adored, and in Hannah’s last work can be found all the startling insights, situations, language, and narrative complexities that our greatest writers are known for. I’m referring to the material collected for the first time, that Barry was working on at the end of his life and was intending for a novel but appear here as four separate stories. A leitmotif of fire cauterizes these fictions, and the characters intermingle throughout, the mystery thickening so that together they do read like a novel. The first chapter, or story, entitled “Fire Water,” begins, “The women fished from a rented aluminum boat with their own big electric trolling motor, handled well by Dr. Haxton, a white woman of eighty years, the same as Betty Dew.” That sets the tone for a six-page story of beauty and suspense. I can’t help but to say I just love Barry Hannah’s female characters, too: Ivy Pilgrim, Esther Haste, Mother Rooney, Lilian and Felice and all the rest. They say the smartest damn things, and you can’t help but love them and feel for them and sort of wish you were a part of their lives, even if they would have crushed you.
It’s said that these newer stories are slower, more contemplative, than Barry’s earlier stories, and though, at times, this may be true (sizable discourse on God, for example), there is always the backdrop of exploding churches, drug-induced hallucinations, helicopters, good legs, flamethrowers, and one man whose secret is that he licks women. He ponders:
Women’s throats in the summertime, that perfume and randy ooze the fairer sex has that we don’t. So I’ve out and said it, and it’s nothing I can help and lucky nobody’s turned me into the law. Five of them positively enjoyed it, and never knew they would until I was across the counter fast as a werewolf and as thirsty for salt as a sponge. Oh I lick them.
Once when we were in Florida, Barry’s brother’s wife, Grace, was talking about some of her favorite authors and I let it slip that I thought her brother-in-law was the greatest living writer in America. Mr. Hannah sort of wobbled on his feet, as if the idea had never occurred to him. He thanked me. Then he said, and I’d heard him say this before, “All I wanted was to make the team.”