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Barry Hannah Biography

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Nationality: American. Born: Meridian, Mississippi, 1942. Education: Mississippi College, Clinton, B.A. 1964; University of Arkansas, Fayetteville, M.A. 1966, M.F.A. 1967. Career: Member of the Department of English, Clemson University, South Carolina, 1967-73; writer-in-residence, Middlebury College, Vermont, 1974-75; member of the Department of English, University of Alabama, University, 1975-80; writer for the director Robert Altman, Hollywood, 1980; writer-in-residence, University of Iowa, Iowa City, 1981, University of Mississippi, Oxford, 1982, 1984, 1985, and University of Montana, Missoula, 1982-83. Awards: Bellaman Foundation award, 1970; Bread Loaf Writers Conference Atherton fellowship, 1971; Gingrich award (Esquire), 1978; American Academy award, 1979; Award in Fiction, Mississippi Institute of Arts and Letters, 1994.

PUBLICATIONS

Novels

Geronimo Rex. New York, Viking Press, 1972.

Nightwatchmen. New York, Viking Press, 1973.

Ray. New York, Knopf, 1980; London, Penguin, 1981.

The Tennis Handsome. New York, Knopf, 1983.

Power and Light. Winston-Salem, North Carolina, Palaemon Press, 1983.

Hey Jack! New York, Dutton, 1987.

Boomerang. Boston, Houghton Mifflin, 1989.

Never Die. Boston, Houghton Mifflin, 1991.

High Lonesome. New York, Atlantic Monthly Press, 1996.

Short Stories

Airships. New York, Knopf, 1978; London, Vintage, 1991.

Two Stories. Jackson, Mississippi, Nouveau Press, 1982.

Black Butterfly. Winston-Salem, North Carolina, Palaemon Press, 1982.

Captain Maximus. New York, Knopf, 1985.

Bats Out of Hell. Boston, Houghton Mifflin/Seymour Lawrence, 1993.

Uncollected Short Stories

"Sources Agree Rock Swoon Has No Past," in Harper's (NewYork), June 1986.

Other

In Honor of Oxford at One Hundred and Fifty. Grenada, Mississippi, Salt-works, 1987.

*

Critical Studies:

Barry Hannah by Mark J. Charney, New York, Twayne, 1992; Barry Hannah: Postmodern Romantic. Baton Rouge, Louisiana State University Press, 1998.

* * *

Barry Hannah's favored form is the monologue, his subject matter the grotesqueries of American life. Hannah's work includes incidents of beheading, a car wreck in the upper branches of an oak tree, a man who saves himself from drowning by balancing on the tip of a car aerial, a walrus's sexual attack on a woman who is having an affair with her nephew, and a drowned man who jump starts himself using a bus battery. "But that's farfetched, and worse than that, poetic, requiring a willing suspension of disbelief along with a willing desire to eat piles of air sausage," complains a character in Nightwatchmen while trying to make sense of a senseless death. A reader must bring along this willingness when reading Hannah.

Geronimo Rex, Hannah's first novel, is a long song of remembrance, an ode to southern adolescence, his discoveries of music and women and firearms and, perhaps most importantly, the extra spark style can give to life. Style is very important to Hannah's characters; this and endurance are the virtues they admire and aspire to. Style is also a large element in Hannah's writing: in Geronimo Rex impressionistic sentences that at first seem a beginning writer's excesses grate against the coming-of-age context, stylize the bar-stool braggart tone of voice: "I felt very precise in the oily seat; I was a pistol leaking music out of its holster." Far from being excesses the mature Hannah would weed out, sentences such as these (what Thomas McGuane admiringly referred to as Hannah's "moon-landing English") come to dominate the later works, from Airships on.

In the stories collected in Airships much of the traditional connective tissue of setting and exterior atmosphere is absent, leaving us with thick, nervous monologues by emotionally damaged men and women with a lot of style. Even the Civil War stories (which are enough alike to suggest Hannah may once have planned a Civil War novel) are narrated by characters with a jaded, violent sensibility identical with that of Hannah's characters from a hundred years later—particularly those with some involvement in the Vietnam War in their past. (Vietnam and the Civil War thread through much of Hannah's work.) Sentences such as "Levaster did not dream about himself and French Edward, although the dreams lay on him like the bricks of an hysterical mansion," mix southern gothic with an updated "hardboiled dick" tone, sometimes moving past intelligibility into a private impressionistic flow. At other times this same mix produces beautiful straight-to-the-heart images: "There is a poison in Tuscaloosa that draws souls toward the low middle." Plots are sketchy here, short portraits or sketches of fragmented lives. Characters, as in much of the work that follows, tend to stand or sit around listlessly, or to strike poses that accentuate their stylized speeches.

The title character in the short novel Ray is hardly a character at all, serving for the most part as a kind of tuning fork adjusted to the pitches of certain kinds of misery, those that reflect his own. Dr. Ray is a drinker, an adulterer, and perhaps a little too free with his drug prescriptions. Dr. Ray was a pilot during the Vietnam War, and has begun confusing this experience with what he knows of the Civil War. Others living the low middle life around Dr. Ray get ahead or fall, but his yearnings are too huge or too vague, too subject to change, and he remains stalled in a stasis of half-hearted healing, sex, and war memories.

The Tennis Handsome was expanded from a story in Airships. The title character, French Edward, sustains brain damage when he is nearly drowned trying either to save or to kill his mother's lover, who is also his old tennis coach. French Edward is still able to continue his career as a tennis pro through the Svengali-like attentions of Levaster, an unsavory old friend who likes to shoot people with a gun loaded with popcorn. The story version ends with everyone admiring, even taking solace in, French Edward's mindless grace and endurance, his perfect second of "blazing" serve. In the novel French Edward phases in and out, sometimes shocking himself into lucidity, writing poetry, finding religion, and generally frustrating everyone around him. Despite its brevity The Tennis Handsome seems to sprawl.

Captain Maximus, Hannah's second story collection, is even more spare, more knife-edged than Airships. Again these vignettes are filled with people consumed by yearning, but devoid of hope. Only in "Idaho," an ode to the late poet Richard Hugo which captures some of the poet's own style, and in "Power and Light," a reflection on the travails of working women, does Hannah's tone lighten at all, and only marginally.

Standing apart from his other works is Hannah's second novel, Nightwatchmen. While the novel's grotesqueries outnumber those of the other novels, it is a much more emotional, caring work. The writing here is much less stylized, and conflicts are not kept at a callous distance. Hannah's other works are plotted concentrically or in parallel lines, with groups of characters having some experience in common rather than sharing some common experience; only in Nightwatchmen do lives truly intersect in any significant way. The primary narrator, Thorpe Trove, is open and vulnerable, concerned for the people around him. He spends two years solving the mysteries of who knocked a half dozen people unconscious, and who then beheaded two nightwatchmen. When Thorpe records the stories of the "innocent" parties involved it becomes clear that they care only for their own fears and defenses. In the end the whodunit aspect is overshadowed by the realization of how much the other characters have in common with The Knocker and The Killer.

Mississippi State Press published Boomerang and Never Die in 1991, which was quickly followed by Bats out of Hell, a collection of stories that brings with it the same flair for the grotesque as Airships. Reviews of the collection were mixed, but given that the reader agrees to bring along a generous willingness to suspend disbelief, there is much to enjoy. Again, the Civil War provides the setting when the Confederate soldiers win the Union troops by playing Tchaikovsky in the title story, "Bats out of Hell Division."

The War in Vietnam also recurs as a shaping force in Hannah's short pieces. For example, in "I Taste Like a Sword," which appeared in The Oxford American, a character named Fagmost pukes at football games "but smiling." When he is dragged off by policeman, we see a glimpse of him that calls to mind the 1960s in the United States: "… him all wet in his lumpy flowered shirt and dirty beard." The narrator tells us that the veteran "… had a good four year war behind [him] and was carried down the street by a flock of children on Memorial Day."

The usual monologue is delivered by a waiter whose sense of humor saves him from the start. He speaks of his father: "… now I realize he might have been interesting although something about my devoted apathy in my teens wouldn't let me like him." By the end of the story, we have seen through his eyes and find him endearing, worthy of the same compassion as Flannery O'Connor's flawed characters. His father, a helicopter technology expert who was exposed to poisonous gas during the war, cries out on his deathbed, "God bless war otherwise the pestilent hordes rising up to level us. There you'd really have your flat plains." Hannah's work continues to be "farfetched and worse than that, poetic," yet the vision seems more tender.

—William C. Bamberger,

updated by Loretta Cobb

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