[30 January 2011]
Los Angeles Times (MCT)
I’ve never had much use for the concept of the “writer’s writer.” It’s a backhanded compliment, a way of suggesting that an author is too obscure, weird, nuanced or flat-out inaccessible to appeal to a general readership. Writer’s writers also rarely end up well: They burn out and work the lecture circuit or turn to drugs and drink. Malcolm Lowry never published another book during his lifetime after the novel Under the Volcano appeared in 1947. Frederick Exley, Hubert Selby Jr. and Frank Conroy all delivered vivid books at the start of their careers and then failed to live up to their promise.
Then, of course, there’s Barry Hannah, more prolific, but no better understood. Between 1972, when his first novel, Geronimo Rex, was nominated for a National Book Award, and March 2010, when he died, at 67, of a heart attack in Oxford, Mississippi, Hannah published 12 books of fiction. His students at the MFA program in creative writing at the University of Mississippi included Donna Tartt, Wells Tower and Larry Brown. And yet, he remains unread and underappreciated.
This may have to do with Hannah’s proclivities; he was such a hard liver in his younger days that Hunter S. Thompson once reputedly called him crazy. It may also have to do with exhaustion; at the time of his death, Hannah was almost a decade into a book called Sick Soldier at Your Door, conceived as a novel but later reconfigured as short fiction. Four pieces from the project close the posthumously published Long, Last, Happy: New and Selected Stories, which also features healthy chunks of his previous collections: “Airships”, “Captain Maximus”, “Bats Out of Hell” and “High Lonesome”. If this makes Long, Last, Happy something of a career retrospective, the book is more emblematic of the unclassifiability of Hannah’s art.
Many of the 31 stories gathered here are less narratives than extended riffs, in which epiphany is secondary to the electric torrent of the language exploding like verbal firecrackers. “I heard the repeating rifles behind me and the shrieks, but my head was a calm green church,” Hannah writes in “Dragged Fighting From His Tomb”. Even the notion of Hannah as a Southern writer — “the best fiction writer to appear in the south since Flannery O’Connor,” claims Larry McMurtry on the cover — seems beside the point. Southern or not, no one else ever wrote like this.
“Once I cheated on her,” the narrator of “Love Too Long” tells us. “I was drunk in Pittsburgh. They bragged on me for being a fly in the South. This girl and I were left together in a fancy apartment of the Oakland section. The girl did everything. I was homesick during the whole time for Jane. When you get down to it, there isn’t much to do. It’s just arms and legs. It’s not worth a damn.”
That’s as unsentimental a portrayal of sex as you’re likely to come across, and that tone marks most of Hannah’s stories, which return, again and again, to the difficulties of the human heart. In “Even Greenland”, two Air Force fliers debate whether to eject from a burning F-14. “I got something to tell you,” says the pilot, John. “I haven’t had a ‘good time’ in a long time. There’s something between me and a good time since, I don’t know, since I was twenty-eight or like that. I’ve seen a lot, but you know I haven’t quite seen it.”
After John goes down with the plane, his surviving crew mate visits “the burn on the blond sand” left by the crash; “I know I am looking at John’s damn triumph,” he observes.
“High-Water Railers” frames the question from the other end of the telescope, as a group of old men gathers at a lakeside pier to reflect on the futility of human vanity. “All our funereal devices,” one declares, “are a denial of the food chain — our coffins, our pyres, our mausoleums, our pyramids. Pitifully declaring ourselves exempt from the food chain. Our arrogance. But we aren’t, we’re right in it. Nits, mites and worms will have us. Never you doubt it.”
What’s remarkable about these stories is their density, how much they pack into a concise space. “Even Greenland” is just three pages, “High-Water Railers” not quite 10, but both resonate with the weight of longer work. Hannah revels in the flexibility the short story offers, the way it can zero in or stretch out wide. Some longer stories are as complex as mini-novels: “Mother Rooney Unscrolls the Hurt,” about a loveless widow who opens her heart to the college boys who board in her home (“You don’t know the hurt that’s come to me,” she tells one. “It tells me I’m alive, hurting.”) or the eccentric masterpiece “Rat-Faced Auntie,” in which a jazz musician lives at the largesse of his bitter aunt after a girlfriend throws a bowl of Lysol in his face.
Still, the most compelling material here is often the shortest, because of Hannah’s tendency to avoid traditional narrative catharsis in favor of a more elusive balance between tragedy and comedy. “Worst time in my life,” a man says in “Water Liars”, a searing early story that takes place on that same lakeside pier. “We had a big flashlight,” he goes on, recalling an eerie night of fishing. “There came up this rustlin in the brush and I beamed it over there. The two of em makin the sounds get up with half they clothes on. It was my own daughter Charlotte and an older guy I didn’t even know with a mustache. My own daughter, and them sounds over the water scarin us like ghosts.”
In that one word, “mustache”, Hannah encapsulates the rage and wonder of the moment. It’s the type of detail that leaves us, Hannah notes in the story, “crucified by the truth.” And yet, the fact that characters and scenes recur in his work highlights the most important truth Hannah has to offer: No story ever ends, any arc is an illusion. Ultimately, all we have is language, and the fleeting observations it allows. “Talk, talk, talk,” Hannah writes in “Sick Soldier at Your Door”. “Much said and nothing settled. You’re not even certain of the subject anymore.”