Memory, the Whole Lying Opera of It: Remembering Barry Hannah

“I looked for flaws in Lilian’s face and neck and hair, but there weren’t any. Couldn’t there be a mole, an enlarged pore, too much gum on a tooth, a single awkward hair around the ear? No. Memory, the whole lying opera of it, is killing me now.”

— from “Testimony of Pilot”

If you’ve ever studied literature or writing, you may have heard the one about the access road and the astral plane. How the author is striving on the page to connect the two — the physical world of his writing (the access road) with the abstract, the pain and want and desire of the characters (the astral plane). Metaphor, imagery, syntax — they can all be rungs in that lofty ladder. But this, you may hear told, is the aim of great literature.

Barry Hannah didn’t give a shit about the astral plane.

No, Barry never looked up, because he knew he wouldn’t find what he needed pulsing through his work. Barry Hannah was a digger. He mined the rutted-out roads of his fiction, dug deep until he found those veins of unrefined metal, the brackish water tables, the petrified artifacts from generations gone. That was where the true need, the true pain, the great miasmic confusion of his characters and their strange worlds came from.

Hannah has been known for some time as the Southern wild man. He drank hard, he drove a motorcycle, and was destined to go out in a blaze of glory. But when Hannah passed away on March 1, he died at his home, of natural causes. It is a sobering reminder of Hannah’s own humanity, that cuts through all the mythology surrounding him and makes him not the romantic rabble-rouser, but the vital citizen and lynchpin to the literary world of Oxford, Mississippi.

That same humanity cuts deep in his work, through all the self-destruction and long drinking and staggering violence. This, the written word, was the addiction that finally took over for Hannah. Yes, he was an unrepentant drinker for years and years. And yes, some of the strange stories circling about him — there’s that one about the gun he brought into a writing workshop — may be true. But in the end, Barry Hannah wasn’t out to destroy himself. He was out to write, as well as he could. And the work he put out, the churning ripple he leaves in his wake, is confusing and brilliant and confrontational and endlessly beautiful.

Once you grasp Hannah not as a raging force of a man, but rather as someone searching for some fraction of sanity in the world, his work starts to take on a different appearance. There’s plenty of drunken, brutal violence on his pages, plenty of racial tension and the language that comes along with it, plenty of people destroying the only thing they love. However, if you read closely, and there’s no other way to read Barry Hannah, you’ll notice something revelatory. These words are life affirming. These folks are trying to survive, trying to stave off the hurt, trying to squeeze their life into an ill-fitting world.

Look no further than Airships — which may be the finest story collection in the last 50 years — to see people stumbling towards the light. Our narrator in “Constant Pain in Tuscaloosa” insults a black man eating a banana, who then comes to the narrator’s house with his sister. This small man suffers indignity after indignity. He burns his leg on his motorcycle’s muffler when he can’t hold it up. His new friend eventually beats him into unconsciousness with a banana. When he finally decides to cook for his guests, he has to fashion a grill out of an oven rack and a hubcap. But he also went out and bought big steaks when he knew they were coming, and he keeps his fridge full of beer. “I keep it for friends who drop by,” he tells his visitors. To which the black man responds, “Ain’t nobody drop by here.”

He’s right, of course. Our narrator gets no visitors. He had a wife once, but she left. What’s easy to overlook in all of his buffoonery, and in his staggering penchant for fucking up, is that this is a man ready for things to change. He springs at the chance to entertain, even if it’s strangers he’s insulted on the street. He keeps that fridge full of Falstaffs, partly so he can drink them, but also just in case new friends somehow come his way.

Some of Hannah’s characters aren’t so harmless in their searching, though. Yonder Stands Your Orphan, Hannah’s last book to be released, contains a laundry list of unrelentingly violent characters. Man Mortimer looks like Conway Twitty and damn near kills everything in sight. But just about everyone he encounters seems at the ready to kill him too. The novel is a violent, swirling fever dream that does many of the strange things Hannah does in all his writing. The syntax is unwieldy, perspectives shift back and forth on a dime, action takes a back seat to rambling, confused ruminations. What may sound like a mess is a troubling and beautiful account of a people trying to push on, each from their own damaged past. There are joys and loves weaved into this bleeding world, but for every embrace, there’s a blade in the belly.

Why? Why were Hannah’s fictive worlds so dark and brooding, so drunken and wounded? How did he get away with his syntactical high-wire acts? Because that world — as absurd as it is terrifying, as funny as it is heartbreaking — is frayed at the edges. The foundation is one crack away from total collapse. This isn’t a world that can be contained by subject-verb-object. Events can’t have a clear beginning and clear end, because the tellers of these wary truths don’t remember when the trouble started, and to them every new thing is the same come down. Until they can fix it and they’ll tear the house down to fix it.

So Hannah must do the same with his prose, and he does. Stories go from third-person to first- and back again. Tense shifts around, confusing time. His syntax constantly separates the modifier from what it is modifying. “Underwood, the pianist, showed up and maybe 12 other people,” the narrator in “Green Gets It”, another story from Airships, explains about his disappointing dinner party. Surely, the 12 other people showed up too, but you’d never know from the sentence, unless you shuffle it around yourself. In that way, Hannah was a genius. Not because his work is difficult — quite the opposite, in fact, once you got into the rhythm it is downright infectious — but because he recognized the sound of his world and committed to it fully, forgetting about those sensible rules of writing we’re all told about.

All the slippery syntax and acrobatic storytelling, however, does not make him the heir to Faulkner’s throne. Let’s make that clear. It’s been said plenty, and the comparison seems all the stronger since they both rose up out of the fertile literary ground of Oxford, Mississippi. But no, Hannah is on his own path. In the same way Faulkner cloistered his brilliant corner into his fictional county of Yoknapatawpha, Hannah’s work can only rise out of its own soil, in the dark, underworld Mississippi he’s constructed. If there’s a connection for Hannah, it’s more likely with Kafka, since few can render such strange worlds without batting an eye, without condescending to explain the parameters to us. Hannah, like Kafka, throws us into the fray and we have to battle, with the same zeal and want as the characters, to figure it all out.

Part of figuring it all out is realizing that Hannah is not really a Southern author. Sure, he represents proudly his state of Mississippi, but the scrounging need and scraping desire behind all these stories, the heartache and hard-swallowed realizations — you can’t regionalize those. You can’t ghettoize this pain and hope it stays away. Hannah gave us a glimpse of ourselves, at our most base and clutching, no matter where we are. We may do different damage to press on, but deep down, we know we’ve felt the same way when we hear the narrator of “Love Too Long” claim “My head’s burning off and I got a heart about to bust out of my ribs.” Hannah’s people show their pain differently, for sure. They lash out for love to dull deep pain, They toss off racial barbs sharpened by a hurt personal pride. They hurt the flesh to slow the sinister thunder of their hearts. But they’d also leave it all behind if they could shake loose of it, if they could bring any part of their strange world into focus.

This is just what Hannah did. He shook off the drink and turned himself over wholly to the written word, to helping these characters dissolve their own confusions. Hannah didn’t become a giant in Oxford, he became something much bigger, much more lasting. Before he died, he was a man of the town. He was a teacher, leading younger writers to scour the unknown, shadowed swaths of land out there in the best way they can. It’s tragic to know he won’t be there to do that anymore, that new students, new inhabitants of Oxford, can’t be influenced by his infectious energy, that his canon is no longer growing, that the brilliant tumbling sound of his work has reached its coda. If you can learn anything from Hannah’s work, it’s that to focus on the struggle and the hurt, no matter how all-encompassing it may seem, is to miss what’s important: that hard-fought-for and won glimmer of cutting light in an otherwise dull world. If there’s solace in any of this, it’s in the fact that Hannah seemed to have found his.

Nowhere was Hannah’s humanity more plain and giving than in his finest story, “Testimony of Pilot”. The story, of a deep love our narrator has for his long-time friend, Quadberry, is as passionate as a story gets. When the narrator William, after knowing Quadberry for most of his life, learns of his friend’s death, he is crushed. “He died with his Arabian nose up in the air,” William says, heartbreakingly pointing out the first thing he noticed about Quadberry years back. And then, “That is why I told this story and will never tell another.”

This last sentiment is a tempting one to fold into. Barry Hannah is gone, and the wound of it is raw. But it will heal, and when we read his books, again and again and again, it will be with reverence, not loss, that we rub the scar.