Southern, wacky, and utterly original, Barry Hannah reminds us in this posthumous collection why he belongs in pantheon of America’s finest writers
In Barry Hannah’s 1980 novel “Ray’’ the eponymous narrator (a dissolute, word-brilliant, and gun-happy doctor whom readers have long been tempted to see as a doppelganger of his creator) is asked by his nephew to promise, “That when I die I won’t be from Ohio.’’ Hannah was always much concerned with where he was from (Mississippi) and, in his later stories in particular, where he was going. Hannah died of a heart attack on March 1, at age 67, and now we know that he’s gone not to Ohio, but to the place all great writers go: a posthumous book, in this case the new and selected collection of stories “Long, Last, Happy.’’ This new work offers more proof of why Hannah should be considered one of our greatest, most original fiction writers.
It’s difficult to overstate Hannah’s importance, both as an influence on other fiction writers and as a chronicler of the changing mores, hopes, fears, prejudices, and self-destructive tendencies of his fellow Americans. But what makes this book required reading is what has always made Hannah’s fiction required reading: No one writes, or sounds, like he does. Take, for instance, the early story “Love Too Long,’’ included in this book and first published in Hannah’s magnificent 1978 collection “Airships.’’ The story, like many of Hannah’s, is about a white Southern man of certain limited economic prospects who has behaved badly and whose wife has left him, and he’s now trying to win her back. This is the plot. But one doesn’t read Hannah for plot; one reads him for sentences like this one, in which the narrator, struggling to explain his feelings about his wife, says, “I want to sleep in her uterus with my foot hanging out.’’
I’ve read thousands of books and millions of testimonials to lost love, but never have I read a sentence like that, a sentence that points to all the violent, disorderly, infantilizing feelings we have when we’ve lost someone and have deserved to lose someone. No matter whether Hannah is writing about the Civil War (as he does brilliantly in “Knowing He Was Not My Kind Yet I Followed’’ from “Airships’’ in which a gay Confederate soldier with a thing for Jeb Stuart is ostracized by his comrades: “Some nights I amble in near the fire to take a cup with the boys, but they chase me away. I don’t scold, but in my mind there are the words: All right, have your way in this twinkling mortal world’’), or marital disappointment (as in “Get Some Young,’’ from 1996’s “High Lonesome,’’ which begins thusly: “Since he had returned from Korea he and his wife lived in mutual disregard, which turned three times a month into animal passion then diminished on the sharp incline to hatred, at last collecting in time into equal silent fatigue’’), or fishing (one of Hannah’s great subjects and which, in stories like “Water Liars’’ and “Getting Ready,’’ is a way and means to dramatize not the difficulties of fishing, but the difficulties of racism, God, self-hate, and self-love), he treats the subject irreverently, but with a surprising amount of tenderness.
This is why his stories often are both wild and elegiac, both modern seeming and backward looking. And this is also why Hannah, stylistically, is so important: He’s often compared to William Faulkner and Flannery O’Connor, and it is true that he shares their love for the grotesque, their gift for oddball, pitch-perfect phrasing. But it’s also true that Hannah has just as much in common with a writer like, say, Joy Williams, who is a merciless, deadpan chronicler of American excess, and who also, like Hannah, was a child of the late 1960s and early 1970s. I mean this not behaviorally or politically, but aesthetically: Hannah (like Williams) wasn’t properly experimental, but nor was he a strict realist. In this he is like Saul Bellow, John Cheever, Grace Paley, and Nathanael West, writers who borrowed what they found useful in American traditions, and left the rest behind.
This — the leaving behind — is what makes reading “Long, Last, Happy’’ both an exhilarating and somber experience. Most of Hannah’s greatest stories are here (although I do miss “Return to Return’’ and “That’s True’’ from “Airships’’ and “Nicodemus Bluff’’ from “Bats Out of Hell’’), but so are Hannah’s last four stories. These stories are obsessed with death and with Jesus, and while they can be hilarious in their treatment of these subjects (as in “Sick Soldier at Your Door,’’ in which the narrator says of another character: “I understand his studies were thorough and he came out completely insane though functional like most seminary students’’ ), they can also be devastating. Here is that same narrator in that same story talking about his cancer: “Two cancers and chemo with its attendant friends neuropathy, boiling claws inside my legs, and a maddening ring ever constant in my head, half a heart and lungs blown away, three invasive surgeries, the horror of waiting waiting waiting for doctors who don’t want to see you and cannot abide the idea of pain. How do I count the ways, fair pain, among the criminals and loafers of the drug, med, hospital, insurance white-collar-larceny colossus?’’
It’s impossible not to think of Hannah’s own cancer problems when reading that passage; but then again, it’s also impossible not to marvel at how a story can be so full of agony in one paragraph, so irreverent in the next, and so beautiful as a whole. In “Fire Water,’’ (another new story, and an especially lovely one), Hannah says that Faulkner wrote “like an octopus with pencils.’’ He might just as well have been talking about himself.
Brock Clarke, the author most recently of the novel “Exley,’’ teaches at Bowdoin College and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.