Barry Hannah’s Long, Last, Happy — the last of the Mississippi boys puts out a posthumous collectionNovember 28, 2010
One thing they say about writing is that everything is material, and that’s true if you get desperate enough. Lord knows my own family recognizes the vampire in me even though when I look in the mirror I get nothing.
But sometimes you don’t want to write about something just because you can, and I felt that way in March when Barry Hannah died. I didn’t want to memorialize him, to wrap him in rags and bury him at sea or whatever. I just wanted to be sad on my own time, in my own way. I miss him and his writing, but I can always read The Tennis Handsome or Ray again.
Besides I always more than half-suspect when somebody goes all verkempt over the loss of some cultural hero or rock star, or for that matter anyone who they didn’t know (or barely knew) what they’re really mourning is their own illusions about their personal mortality — or at least their foreclosed possibilities of ever impinging upon the lately deceased. (I know when Andy Warhol died I felt cheated that I had never met him.)
But now there’s an occasion for writing about BH that doesn’t have to do with his dying or the sorting out of what he ought to mean to people who have never heard of him. The official publication date of Long, Last, Happy (Grove, $27.50) is December 1, which means it’s been in the bookstores for about a month now.
Long, Last, Happy is a collection of 31 of Hannah’s short stories, four of which are new. It’s also a fitting place for anyone who doesn’t know a whole lot about Hannah — and there’s no shame there, we don’t live in an age or country that values fauvist truthtellers, we live in an age and country where that sort of behavior is likely to get you arrested or assassinated — to begin.
For the highest and best use of Barry Hannah, is — apart from serving as unacknowledged provider of style and persona to a few columnists I could name — as a writer or short stories, little vignettes and sketches that hurry themselves into a kind of high tight tittling incoherence that’s recognizably part of the human experience while at the same time as weird and old as a Louvin Brothers’ murder ballad.
In other words, you don’t come to Barry for plot or even for the evocation of a specific place, you come to him for his strange, bull genius poetry spew; his incantory voice. It’s not so much his words but the way he sings them.
OK, I’m not making sense. I’ll allow that. Think of it this way: James Dickey once said every writer in America over the age of fifty was a gutshot bear, and that’s true as far as it goes, but Beary could dance even as he lay dying. He was true and awful, and as much as I love his novels I know that his fevers ran their course. He himself admitted that sustainability was not his bag.
“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.’’
The line comes from the story “Knowing He Was Not My Kind Yet I Followed,” about a gay Confederate soldier in love with his commander, General Jeb Stuart. His comrades cannot help but notice, and they bully him about, but he is stoic, resigned to his nature. Hannah finds a way to tenderness through the undergrowth of human snark and defensive superiority. If there are better writers on the pathologies of racism I’m not aware of them.
To call a writer a “Southern writer” is to in a sense dismiss and ghettoize their work, but sometimes maybe it is useful to consider what the winemakers call terroir when discussing literary matters. Barry Hannah was of the South, an Oxford don, enough like Faulkner and Flannery O’Connor in his apprehension of the minds that surrounded him. But Southernness was not for him a cage but a kind of useful mask, a contrived blankness upon which he could project his madcap movies.
Hannah was sui generis, a writer of prose who communicated in furious bouts of grace. He refreshed this here tradition, he did, and sorely missed he is by those who care about these silly things.