The Time I Went Fishing with Barry Hannah
William Giraldi in Praise of the "Rebel of the English Language"
Yet another mid-list novelist was scheduled to lecture that afternoon at the Sewanee Writers’ Conference in 2003 and Barry Hannah wanted no part of it. After lunch we stood out beneath a singeing Tennessee sun as attendees and Hannah fanatics dispersed down several sidewalks. We watched them go, not at all eager to follow. Hannah asked me if I had been fishing lately and I said, “Like a Nazarene.”
He had recently become reinvigorated by the Christianity of his boyhood—born again, or born anew, though we are all being somehow born anew in our various walks and ways—and he had gone sober after a lifetime of being a venal Baptist and then nearly dying in an Oxford, Mississippi, hospital from too many maladies: lymphoma, pneumonia, organs napalmed by decades of cigarettes and booze. As a twenty-something sycophant and Hannah fanatic myself, I referenced Christ when I could—my Catholic learning on me like a party hat—and even recited for him the religious sonnets of John Donne and Father Gerard Manley Hopkins. “Those bards are bent believers,” he said. “Sing more,” and I did.
He was used-up and feeble all that week, Band-Aids on the slack sun-wrinkled flesh of his arms. We walked to his motel room to retrieve the fishing poles and right away he lit a Camel filter: out of view, the door bolted, since he knew that worried people were keeping watch and might attempt a rescue. The doctors had ordered him off tobacco and sin but Barry Hannah had a hard time abiding rules. Rumor whispered of him still swilling whiskey by the jug and agitating the Christian calm of Oxford on his Harley-Davidson.
This transgressive quality is what one experiences instantly upon entering his fallen world: the sentences laid down as if by a Dionysian celebrant invested equally in creation and destruction, a syntax activated in chaos and ecstasy, his South an almost-apocalyptic, near-dystopian swamp of shame from which the customary and commonsensical have fled for good. Step lively: God’s grace is far from given. It’s an unsafe world, a repository of ruin, waste, and doctrinal despair, shot through with the ominous sense that something sinister can occur any second, something outrageous and hell-bent and beautiful, and that hazard is precisely what makes his fiction so exciting, “such a beloved reprieve from the usual,” as the narrator of his novella Hey Jack! describes snow in the South.
Richard Ford recalls his first encounter with Hannah’s stories: “His sentences had, among their teeming effects and emotions, a perilous feel; words running . . . between sense and hysteria; verbal connectives that didn’t respect regular bounds and might in fact say anything.” Those unpredictable and blissed-out sentences had made him the only living godfather of Southern literature, honored and sought-after by scribes south of the Mason-Dixon line or anyplace in the nation where readers recognized mayhem as magic.
Hannah assembled the fishing poles in a cigarette fog, and I noted the phalanx of pill bottles on his dresser. It occurred to me then that the godfather could perish in my custody and that this would make me persona non grata. When I asked if he felt well enough to fish, he said, “I’m tired. But I need to be tired, tired enough to sleep the night through since I can’t seem to do it. I’m not complaining. I’m thankful to be alive.” I was more an imposter-reporter than a new fishing pal: I scribbled his every other sentence into a notebook, aware that I would need to remember, to get it all down right. I could not afford to do without Hannah’s wicked brand of acumen—in my life, in my work—and he didn’t mind my furious scribbling. He was used to it by now.
But how to capture that voice? And I don’t mean the molasses Mississippi drawl but the slightly reptilian hiss that preceded his every clipped clause, the calculated elocution of someone who handles a sentence like an affable hatchet. Hearing him chat as he prepared a fishing pole was identical to sitting at the worn sandals of some heretic wizard mostly bored with his large abilities.
And why would this rebel of the English language, this prose mastermind who had zapped to life a generation of younger writers, choose to pass time with a toady kid from Boston he had met only a few days earlier? I suspect because during our previous conversations I never once mentioned writing; because I spoke of bass fishing in the deep green of Maine; because I was a far-from-home melancholic whose heart was just then being howitzered by the woman he loved; and because Barry Hannah’s own heart was as capacious and willing as his instinct for cyclonic phrases. Forget the ridiculous mythos of Wildman Hannah—his kindness could have cured the lame. What did Allen Tate say of Edgar Poe? “If he was a madman he was also a gentleman.”
“I scribbled his every other sentence into a notebook, aware that I would need to remember, to get it all down right. I could not afford to do without Hannah’s wicked brand of acumen—in my life, in my work—and he didn’t mind my furious scribbling.”
Mick Jagger wailed at half volume from a portable radio in the bathroom. (Hannah once referred to the Rolling Stones in a story as “those skinny, filthy Lazaruses.”) He ordered me to obtain the Blue Note albums of Jimmy Smith, jazz organist-genius—“You will want and need him,” he said—and then classified Jimmy Hendrix as a god not fit for this foul world. In Hannah’s short novel Ray, the fighter-pilot protagonist rocks out to Hendrix over Hanoi; and in “Idaho,” from the collection Captain Maximus, the narrator seeks relief in Hendrix after being ravaged by a divorce and the cancer death of a friend.
Hendrix mattered to Hannah the way deliverance matters to a Pentecostal, and music—like tennis and flying—is everywhere in his work, center stage or stage right. In a 2005 interview Hannah says: “Some of my pals are Bach, Dylan, Jimi Hendrix, and Mozart, ear perfect people. They stir me.” In a 1993 essay, Will Blythe wrote that “what Hendrix did with the guitar, Hannah does with prose: invent a whole new American music.” Are not all poets and fiction writers in some sense closeted musicians, those who wish to croon and jam but are held back by the daunt of instruments and audience?
But in a 1997 interview Hannah says this: “People who try to make a direct connection between prose lines and music are fools. You can’t write music.” His story “Testimony of Pilot,” from the inestimable collection called Airships, is equal to James Baldwin’s story “Sonny’s Blues” or Eudora Welty’s “Powerhouse” at capturing the ostensibly ineffable, transformative quality of song. The matchless lines in Airships put you in half-frightened awe at the altar of English: “ruesome honks poured from his horn”; “what a bog and labyrinth the human essence is”; “I want to sleep in her uterus with my foot hanging out”; “profundity of the eternal sort had passed near.” My God, I thought upon first experiencing that book, what a golden tongue this man has.
Hannah’s work is a postmodern fever dream of semi-free association, a theater of the absurd with overtones of Ionesco in which spiritual isolatos and vagabonds have become severed from civilization and all the laws it requires to work. In The Tennis Handsome, one character says, “Neither of us is really from anywhere now,” and another replies, “That happens to a lot of us.” Hannah’s is the unholy language of an outraged id, verbal voodoo inventing itself. You may hurl “lyrical” as a slur to mean plotlessness plus poeticism—all that prettiness in service of nothing, more blah from the tenderhearted—but the twisted lyricism in Hannah always administers narrative, navigates through the rock-jagged darkness to the hub of us, and approximates the religio-mythical path from destruction to redemption. Break it down to build it up, fertility from fire. Hannah’s cosmos becomes a kind of backward Babel where the assignation of new language permits not befuddlement but clarity, a Windexed view onto a once-lush garden. He dismantles traditional American syntax and then constructs a bastardized hybrid of verse and prose that is both riveting and irregular, a hell-for-leather homage to his first literary influence, Dylan Thomas. (In a 1999 essay called “Mr. Brain, He Want a Song,” Hannah writes lovingly of Thomas: “God, to be Welsh and drunk and start hollering out surrealism.”) Choose any book; fan to any page. Here’s a bit from “Through Sunset into the Raccoon Night,” from High Lonesome, Hannah’s finest, fullest story because it achieves equal parts hilarity and heart-wreck, every paragraph a marvel of linguistic bravado:
Lovers are the most hideously selfish aberrations in any given territory. They are not nice, and careless to the degree of blind metal-hided rhinoceroses run amok. Multitudes of them cause wrecks and die in them. Ask the locals how sweet the wreckage of damned near everybody was around that little pube-rioting Juliet and her moon-whelp Romeo. Tornado in a razor factory, that’s what sweetness.
The lover as aberration: somehow both hyperbolic and dead-on. The unexpected and inevitable choices of “territory” and “ask the locals.” The clause “they are not nice”: a child’s simplicity with newfound might. The deliberately understated “careless” combined with the alliterative comic bedlam of “blind metal-hided rhinoceroses run amok.” The Motown oddity and collision of opposites in “how sweet the wreckage.” And of course “pube-rioting Juliet” and “moon-whelp Romeo”: the mind behind those two phrases just doesn’t function like yours and mine.
In the story “The Spy of Long Root,” from Bats Out of Hell, Hannah writes that high-tech bicycle helmets are “reminiscent of magnified sperm in full motility.” In no other American writer save Updike could you discover an image comparable in its sheer sexual accuracy and surprise. (About Updike, Hannah said to me, “He’s a genius, okay? But I don’t get him.” Updike wrote a favorable review of Hannah’s Geronimo Rex in 1972.)
After we had prepared the fishing poles that afternoon in his room and were ready to set out, Hannah asked me how my lover was leaving me. Not why but how, since he knew that the why is always the same: sacrifices regretted, promises ignored, emotional realities unacknowledged. Growing up factors in prominently. Dreams, too, have something to do with it. I replied with some forgettable gibberish my grief had forced on me. I didn’t know how, and I barely understood why.
Hannah’s philosophy of love is clear enough to anyone who studies his work: love often means compulsion wed to delusion. He is both a prophet of lust unafraid of semen and blood and an apostle of womanhood: many of his men confuse infatuation with ardor or neurosis with zeal, and they usually pay mightily for their mess-ups, as I was paying mightily for mine. “Love Too Long” in Airships ends with: “Nothing in the world matters but you and your woman. . . . I’m going to die from love.” Try to rebuff the truth of those lines. From his first book, Geronimo Rex, in 1972, to his last, Yonder Stands Your Orphan, in 2001, Hannah deploys a slinky wisdom of men and women in love and hate and what we do to one another in our worst moments, which are frequent, and frequently unforgivable.
Readers do not often regard Hannah as a prophet of the heart, a “love maniac,” as Rick Bass describes him. Female readers and scholars appear either to shun or abhor him. (The most notable exception is Ruth Weston in Barry Hannah: Postmodern Romantic. Hannah himself admired the book.) His work might contain pro-female passages fit for a Sapphic rally, but his overall depiction of sex and women, like his depiction of human behavior in general—unpleasant, duplicitous, sometimes savage—has won him no fans among feminists or the easily unsettled. “Ride Westerly for Pusalina,” from Bats Out of Hell, ends in sexual violence shocking enough to jolt those deadened by the Saw franchise, and the narrator of “Carriba,” from High Lonesome, christens one woman “a roving clamp.”
Many tend to discount the goodness and mercy in his fiction—such as the scenes between the narrator and his pal’s girlfriend in “Testimony of Pilot,” or the human decency at the core of Boomerang—and instead make a show of turning on the wipers to clear away the gore, and this despite Weston’s smart assertion that the “spirit of Hannah’s fiction” is “essentially optimistic.” Hannah writes in “Carriba” that “we have to love each other . . . Even if we don’t want to, we have to.” Those words deliberately recall Auden’s oft-cited line from “September 1, 1939”: “We must love one another or die.”
Academics in general have a hard time getting a handle on Barry Hannah, which has little to do with the fact that he had scant regard for scholars—the narrator of “Idaho” dubs them “drudges working with computers against Shakespeare”—or that he was, like Richard Yates, always a writer’s writer with a short range in the marketplace and the academy. Rather, his ferocious vision of the South and the oddities of his style and storytelling sensibility seem either to discourage academics or else inspire a cacophony of incoherence—Perspectives on Barry Hannah, for instance, in which most of the contributing academics do what academics do best: earless, obscurantist prose. I drove us in Hannah’s old Jeep Cherokee to a spot he knew on a river not far from the conference, and once we sat on a grassy patch and began casting our lines into the current, he told me about a book he was halfway through: Edward Leslie’s The Devil Knows How to Ride, about William Clarke Quantrill, the Confederate guerrilla and mass murderer. “He was a killer,” Hannah said, “a ruthless killer, nothing more. Killed as many people in Kansas as he could, mostly civilians. Makes you wonder how a demon like that gets born.” He said this with a mix of admiration, contempt, and bewilderment, as if Quantrill were an obstinate algebraic equation that needed immediate solving.
The violence throughout Hannah’s work is remarked on at least as much as his newfangled language; some readers and critics want to believe he invented brutality in literature. Hannah is indeed awestruck before human cruelty and chooses to paint it in Homer’s radiant red—no one complains of the violence on the sand at Ilium (Hannah told an interviewer in 2001 that he is “a student of the myths, the true myths”)—but not because he is a sadist out for titillation. Philip Roth gets it right when he describes the cruelty in Ray: “the brutish, menacing, driven stuff of life.” The narrator of that novel notes that “some days even a cup of coffee is violence.”
Our baffling lust for brutality is part of the human fabric, and this fabric—all the strands that compose it and how those strands are woven—is Hannah’s subject as it was Homer’s. To shrink from accurate illustrations of the bloody evil in men amounts to cowardice, an unfinished portrait of this ravening world and our uncertain place in it. Hannah’s reality is our own, “a reality sufficiently terrible,” as Tate says of Poe. Monsters dwell inside us, and they will have vent. Hannah once said: “Privately we are all monsters, if we’d only look at our obsessions.” The final paragraph of “A Christmas Thought,” from Bats Out of Hell—a brief parody of inane bloodshed—perfectly captures Hannah’s postlapsarian credo:
When you read and wonder, for six seconds, about the random, pointless violence of these days, then are blissful it was not you, having, really, a better day, stop and think: Could not these felons be, really, God’s children, loose, adept, so hungry and correct in our world?
Open a history book or just glance around you: see what God’s correct children are capable of.
And yet for all his intrepid rendering of human violence, Hannah is only one part of a contemporary Southern triumvirate of blood-scribes. Cormac McCarthy and William Gay practice a godless butchery that surpasses Hannah’s. The cosmic carnage rampant in McCarthy’s Blood Meridian has no equal in American letters, and Lester Ballard nightmares through Child of God like a thing bubonic, a heinous, deliberate misfit unlike any of Hannah’s upright villains. In Gay’s terrifying novel Twilight, Granville Sutter, a devil without creed or cause, uses a switchblade to slaughter an entire family—and their dog. That species of straight-faced sadism has no counterpart in Hannah’s world; when his characters go gorily berserk, as they do in the novel Never Die, the violence is usually satirical.
His tragicomic savagery puts him more in league with Harry Crews than with either McCarthy or Gay. Even his battlefield tales of the Civil and Vietnam Wars can’t compare to the malaise and murder in Thom Jones’s famous story “The Pugilist at Rest.” In a 2002 speech he delivered at Bennington College (published as “Why I Write” in Harper’s in 2010), Hannah mentions his “need to listen to the orchestra of living,” and the necessary “bursts of kindness in improbable times, the warm hand in dire straits.” Those who miss this in his work are missing much.
So Hannah was a little uneasy about his reputation as a connoisseur of human calamity, and confused about why the violence in his fiction would be so off-putting to some. “This is the most violent era I’ve ever lived in,” he once told an interviewer. “Mothers killing babies—I’ve never even touched that subject. I’ve never really gotten to the grisly, hideous things that you read in the newspaper.” (Hannah is no doubt referring here to Andrea Yates, the Texas mother who murdered her five young children in a bathtub in June 2001.) I can tell you how he released a five-pound catfish from a hook: with concern and Samaritan pity. “This one’s got some growin’ left in him,” he said.
“Hannah’s philosophy of love is clear enough to anyone who studies his work: love often means compulsion wed to delusion.”
The following night Hannah gave his reading to a standing-room-only lecture hall, a flock of admirers, emulators, disciples, and those car-crash gawkers who came to hear how Wildman Hannah might blaspheme and spew. But the only mildly inflammatory mention was about how most of the student work he’d been reading at the conference didn’t have “hope of finding even an elegant trash can.” He then read from a half-finished essay about his vision of Christ while he recovered from cancer, an essay that would appear in 2005 with the title “Christ in the Room.”
“I hesitate,” he began, “but there’s no argument or apology here. Four years ago in April Christ appeared to me in a dream firmer than a dream. He was six feet tall, dark hair to the shoulders, with the body of a working man.” I’m not sure if it sounded to anyone like the man had gone mad and was now erect on an Evangelical soapbox, but some did glance around to gauge the reactions of others. His sentiments should have surprised no one: Hannah’s South has always been as Christ-plagued as O’Connor’s, and now it had simply gone from plagued to possessed.
After the essay, he read from a short story about two friends, both archetypal Hannah heroes, beaten down and trying to be better. Three-quarters of the way through he began to get weepy. “I’m sorry,” he said. “I’ve never cried during a reading before, never.” The story reminded him of a cherished friend who’d just died. I suspect he was weeping also because he could smell his own death in that room, with all of us looking at him, waiting for his legendary vitality to wilt. The pieces he read might have been disjointed that evening, but they reduced half of the listeners to silent sobbing. At the end he said goodbye to his Sewanee friends, some of whom he’d known for decades. He seemed certain that he didn’t have much time left, and he wasn’t the only one.
In fact, he had nearly seven more years to live—seven more years to extend the language with his particular wizardry. But he didn’t or couldn’t produce another book and had sworn off short stories for essays. He’d told me on the river that he abandoned short fiction because no one but other writers cared for it and because there was no money to be had. “Essays are creative,” he said, “the same thing.” The few essays Hannah published between the time we met in 2003 and his death in 2010 have their invaluable moments of Hannahesque mischief and shine, yes, but they cannot touch the effulgence of his best fiction and are mostly alternate riffs on his comprehension of scripture. In 2009 the journal Gulf Coast published an excerpt from a novel in progress called Sick Soldier at Your Door—a Hannah title if ever there was one—and Harper’s reprinted the excerpt, but thus far no word that Sick Soldier is finished and forthcoming.
It became difficult to determine over the years how much Hannah was writing—no new stories appeared in the magazines and journals—or how his health was faring. Friends in the South would send word to me on occasion; either Hannah was thriving on his Harley or tethered to an oxygen tank indoors. In the letters we exchanged he wrote of his students and the many books he was reading—the Gospels, Dostoevsky, Kafka, Camus—but only vaguely of his work and never of his health. After a long time of feeling ambivalent about teaching, he had come to think of his students as his darlings—he treasured them now. During his fiction workshop at Sewanee a student had asked him for the best advice he could give, and he said: “Thrill me.”
When I returned from Sewanee that year I sent him some CDs of various under-the-radar musicians I wanted him to hear—Ike Reilly, Joe Henry, Bob Schneider—and photos of him holding up the catfish to the camera. His return letter, all vintage humor and wit, revealed that the man was unable to write dead sentences. Near the end, he jokes about being “a minor James Brown without the musical talent but all the moves,” and then declares, “I did it my way.” We will remember him just like that, always, as a witness who had the guts to live well and read well and then return to tell us of the thrill he’d found.
–This profile originally appeared in AGNI, 72
From American Audacity: In Defense of Literary Daring, by William Giraldi. Used with permission of Liveright. Copyright © 2018, William Giraldi.