Years After Barry Hannah’s Death, He Haunts Us Still
Michael Bible on the Southern "Writer's Writer"
Eight years ago the writer Barry Hannah was to be honored at a book festival in his hometown of Oxford, Mississippi. A few days before the festival was to begin, he died. That night a building that housed an old bar downtown he used to frequent burned spectacularly to the ground. I was on a rooftop, close to the flames, and someone said, “Barry did it from beyond the grave.” I agreed.
I knew Barry for the last five years of his life. Now, nearly a decade after his death, his writing and legacy still haunt me. Not only in his influence on me as a writer but more in his instructions on how to pursue a wild and curious life.
For the first three years I knew him as a teacher in the graduate writing program at Ole Miss. Most of the first year I was afraid to talk to him. I had worshiped his writing. If I saw him walking on campus, I walked the other way. I think I was afraid of embarrassing myself and I did plenty of that in workshops. I remember one story I got back from him. He’d highlighted a section and wrote in the margins “oh, please.” But after a couple years I began to learn what made a good story and by the end of my time there he’d agreed to be my thesis advisor.
He told his students that some writer had once wished to write a novel that when the reader finished it, they died. “I want to do the opposite of that,” Barry would say. He’d suffered through more than a decade of cancer and kept teaching. In one of his last classes I had with him he made us perform the whole of Waiting for Godot. He loved Samuel Beckett and I couldn’t help thinking he shared with him a sense of persistence in the face of absurdity. When I began to do Lucky’s monologue too fast he told me to slow down so he could hear the mystery.
But there was a time after school that I began to see Barry in another way. Not as a mentor and writer but as townsperson. It was while I was working at the local bookstore, Square Books, which functions as much more than simply a retail outlet for books. It’s the center of town gossip and a shelter from the storm. Barry was a constant figure in the store. People would stop shopping and hang around and listen to him talk. His delivery always reminded me of the comedian Jonathan Winters. He was our writer, the local genius.
In his writing, Barry had a soft spot for misfits and outsiders but in many ways he was a middle class guy who hustled from teaching job to teaching job most of his adult life. He had his brushes with fame, working with editor Gordon Lish and his time in Hollywood with Robert Altman, but never had a true breakout hit.
“And there are lots of wild Barry stories out there. But I only ever knew him as a gentle person.”
But he did leave behind a cult following. The old adage about the Velvet Underground rings true: Few people bought their records but everyone who did started a band. Well, few people bought Barry Hannah’s books, but everyone who did became a writer. I encounter these cult members in unlikely places like LA and New York and Europe, and we rattle off our favorite Barry lines. These people always ask me the same thing. Are the wild stories really true? What was he like? I answer them the same way. He was the most naturally funny person I’ve ever met. Which is true, but it’s not a real answer. It’s something to say. I’m sure he was a million different things to people that knew him much better than I did like his family and lifelong friends. And there are lots of wild Barry stories out there. But I only ever knew him as a gentle person. Having Barry live in our town connected us to a larger world. He made us think Mississippi wasn’t a forgotten place, doomed forever to be remembered by its worst people and impulses. As Barry put it, “The Deep South might be wretched, but it can howl.”
Barry’s status as a writer’s writer bothered him, I think. He always wanted to have Kurt Vonnegut numbers. But I’m glad he never reached that level in his life. Fame is a disease that infects all those who encounter it. From the outside it seems like the pinnacle of a career, the end goal of creative work. But the writing world is littered with those whose fame overshadowed their work and destroyed them from the inside out. People like Harper Lee and J.D. Salinger, who are thought of as eccentric for shunning the public. But in retrospect retreat from fame looks to be the more sane route. I think often of Carson McCullers typing out the Ballad of the Sad Cafe with one finger after a series of strokes. She was famous at the age of 22 and died at 50.
For many weeks before Barry died, his wife Susan was in the hospital. I remembered visiting their house during those years. Barry using an oxygen machine while smoking and Susan bald from chemo. Maybe a half a dozen dogs running around everywhere. Susan and Barry were always taking care of each other. When Barry died Susan was in the hospital. He’d been so worn down by disease and sadness. I think his heart just gave out.
One of my jobs at the bookstore was to put a black ribbon on the door if anyone associated with the store passed away. I was often the one who had to tell people of someone’s death. The day Barry died the owner called from the hospital to tell us to put a ribbon on the door. Person after person came in and I had to break the news to them. It was a feeling of profound loss. There was nothing left of Barry in town. Except his books, which were full of pain and suffering and loud manic beautiful sentences.