Sunday, August 7, 2011
BARRY HANNAH, HE WANT A SONG
Barry Hannah is dead, but he wrote some great books and inspired countless writers with his honest art and his no bullshit attitude. He was not "literary" in the phoney sense, but a literary master nonetheless, and, to hear him tell it, a "small-town boy, a gawker" and "a rubbernecking perckerwood." Words were his weapon as well as his poison. Not his only poison. He drank himself nearly to death, fought alcoholism as well as cancer, and somehow kept his humanity while hassling with his creativity. It might have been easier doing something else, pissing it away at cocktails parties, say, or maybe working as a small town mayor, thumbs hooked in his vestpockets, cigar clenched in his teeth, telling everybody else what to do, but no, he left the comfort zone to wrestle--sometimes even slowdance-- with the Muse. He taught, too, in spite of himself. Sometime accidentally. In the following essay, he teaches plenty.
"Ah well, the brain wants a song," he says. "And the message is always the same--we are alive and dying. Hot wind in the skull. No possum, no sop, no taters until we sing the song. You have to act or not eat. Sing your song, than fall on your victuals, and become a man. Otherwise you are a half-man, a zombie, an uninvited guest, if you feel like me when you can't sing. This might go on for months. Food is bitter and friends are flat."
Hannah was from the Deep South, Mississippi in fact, and he wrote in a wicked vernacular so comparisons to Faulkner are inevitable (as well as Flannery O'Conner and Mark Twain), and people who love neat little boxes in their world might consider him "a regional writer," a master of Southern Gothic, but he was clearly more than that, and his influence ran as far and wide as the Big Muddy.
He died last year, and many writers came forward with their remembrances of the man in an article in Vanity Fair (March 3, 2010), among them Richard Ford.
“One great thing about Barry," said Ford, "was how, in his person, he managed to preserve the deep mystery of literary art. In that way he was like Faulkner, himself. Frontally, he presented you with what seemed to be a recognizable southern type—the swaggering, impudent, small-town, pool-hall residing, wise-cracking, occasionally bibulous little smart-ass. Who then incongruously but absolutely legitimately wowed and amazed you with his celestial-quality literary sentences and constructions that could've come from no other brain but his, and that you never forgot. Many people have had the experience of Barry's stories and novels changing their lives forever. I think that's precisely what he aimed for. He always said, ‘Shoot for the stars.’ And he surely did that. He was the real deal."
Amy Hempel, an old friend of Hannah and an excellent short story writer, said, “Barry was, and will always be, essential—as a writer and as a man with an exquisite, deep soul. His death is a world-changing loss for so many of us.”
His writing comes across at times both grim and humorous, gothic and gonzo, as informal as a backyard conversation with a drunken neighbor yet as incantatory as a voodoo spell. Pedantic professors may label him one thing or another, emboldened by their collective cowardice, but they're just following breadcrumbs through the woods. Hannah owns the woods. As he might say, enough phoney literary bullshit, let the man speak for himself. Here's the essay quoted above. Just click to enlarge it and read it.
Now if you're a writer get writing. I'd better get back to work myself. Coffee break's over. If you're a reader, a serious reader who likes good stories you've never heard before (as opposed to all those overly familiar, predictable stories, in print and on screen, that follow a cozy little formula and comfort rather than challenge) you could do worse than pick up a copy of "Ray" or "Airships." Now that's writing.