Barry Hannah and I

October 13, 2014 | 4 books mentioned 13 7 min read

coverI still remember with hallucinatory precision reading Barry Hannah’s Ray while laying out on my futon in my graduate school hovel in Charlottesville, Virginia. I was a southern transplant having moved from the north to the south when I was ten. I had a love/hate relationship with the place. None of the then popular southern writers moved me much—Lee Smith, Clyde Edgerton, Jill McCorkle—all romanticized the South and its characters. Hannah, on the other hand, hadn’t gotten the memo about the folksy-soft-glow south; instead he drove full throttle into the taboos of the messed up region, taking on the Jesus-obsessed nuts, the macho lunatics still hurting from the loss of the Civil War, the racial friction, and the lush almost mystical landscape.

Ray, the main character of the book of the same name, was familiar to me. He was a drunken doctor, a poet, an adulterer, a bigot, a deeply charming and unconventional man. The sentences in the book inspired me, reminding me of another hero, Jane Bowles. From the first few words you could not tell where the rest of the sentence might careen. “So I ordered a double Vodka to hose down my conscience” and “I invent cheerfulness from my heart, the biggest engine.” I quickly read more: the masterful Geronimo Rex about a factory owner’s son and his friendship with an African American marching-band leader and the mind-blowing stories in Airships. Ray, though, remained my favorite. Thoughout graduate school I dove continuously into its pages. Hannah was direct about the erotic sphere, a subject I was also trying to take on. “She was a violent delight. For about an hour we went into the beautiful nowhere together.” He was also honest about the derailing effects of that desire. “Ray, the filthy call of random sex is a killer. It kills all you know of the benevolent order of your new life.” The high low jam-up, the economy of language and the eccentric, incandescent phrasing: “To live and delight in healing, flying, fucking. Here are the men and women.” It all convinced me that if the power ever went off I could use the book to electrify my entire house.

coverFlash forward eight years, my novel Suicide Blonde had recently come out and while it was getting good reviews, The New Yorker had not liked it. I tried to let that sink in. The New Yorker, the magazine I’d read since I was a teenager, willing myself into its pages on a weekly basis. The New Yorker, that Mount Olympus of the Literary World, had in its pages a cartoon caricature of me! The article, which was also a send up of my charismatic publisher, Morgan Entrekin, critiqued something I’d also been worried about, my novels grim fixation on sex. At first I cried and then spent days roaming around my apartment, pulling books off the shelf, only to convince myself that everything I read was better then anything I’d ever compose.

My phone rang into this atmosphere of despondency and a voice, friendly and southern, asked for me. Barry introduced himself. “I wanted to call and say you wrote an honest book.” He went on to tell me that The New Yorker article had made him angry. “You should be proud of yourself,” he said, “you told the truth.” My heart was beating so loudly in my ears, I could only say, Thank you. Thank you so much.

After that I was like his dog. I wrote to him expressing my adoration for his writing and telling him about myself, that I was a minister’s daughter and a new mother. He wrote to me asking for a “marginally southern story” for the then new magazine Oxford American. “As you know the south is a wide tremendous nation with big fingers in NYC.” As we corresponded I heard about his daily life, his love of tennis. “Trying to get back to my career as a minor tennis hero.” He had a weekly game with a graduate student. “He’s young but I’m old and crafty. I have to win points fast because of my awful Marlboro habit.” In one letter he asked for payment for an essay he’d written for an anthology Rick Moody and I were editing. “I want to start around the square soon with my roll of 100’s spread around to impress certain women who have been ignoring me. Starting with my wife, who’s studying French at night and does not light up like a candle when I enter the room.” When I complained about the business of writing he concurred. “Don’t feel alone. It’s the times, the viciously commercial times—very hard on writers of all sorts.”

Barry entreated me to get “living tissue on the page.” He told me voice was about “finding your own past, your people and the conditions you’ve observed close to you, valuable.” He explained how first person was not about interior intellectual exposition, but a point of view where “you could be more interested in the fool.” Finally, whenever I complained about the difficulty of our profession, he’d remind me that we’d given ourselves to writing without any promises. That there was something “thrilling about risking your whole self for something with no guarantee.”

coverHis letters weren’t always strictly supportive. When I sent him the manuscript for my third book, Jesus Saves, he was honest about his reservations. He liked the mood of the book, the tone and the voice, but “there were many rough patches of prose.” He went on to say, “I do not speak from smug superiority in any way—I’m not above anything myself. I am capable still of huge blunders.” He asked to see a smoother version and, thanks to his honesty, I was able to made the book better.

In 1998 Barry called me again, this time to offer me the Grisham Fellowship at the University of Mississippi. The day I arrived with my three-year-old daughter, Abbie, at the lovely sprawling house the college provided across the street from William Faulkner’s Rowan Oak, Barry drove up in his pickup truck with four stray dogs yapping in the back. In person, he was a round-faced, handsome, and deeply charming man. Our meetings around town thrilled me. Once as I walked into Ajax, a restaurant on the square, for lunch, Barry, who was sitting at a table eating an oyster po’boy and reading the new Phillip Roth novel, yelled out “Steinke! It’s a literary scene. It only takes two of us in Mississippi.” We met for lunch regularly, though it was the chance encounters I remember most. Once I was carrying a Hendrix CD I’d just bought from the local record store, when I ran into Barry. “Hendrix,” he said, “its like the blues with a helicopter in it.”

I also learned the local lore about him. Though sober for years, stories about his drinking days were a staple of Oxford’s oral tradition. How, wearing only a speedo and dark glasses, he’d spend his Saturdays spread out on a lawn chair in his back yard drinking from a tray of martinis and blasting the Stones on his tape player. After each drink was done, he’d throw the glass, shattering it against the trashcan. One story had him, during a drunken night, knocking on doors with the excuse that he was diabetic and needed a ham sandwich for his blood sugar, from second story Square balconies he’d hook passerby’s hats with a fishing line, and then there was the legendary speech he gave at the SPCA on the importance of unifying the cat people and the dog people.

Before I left to go back to Brooklyn, Barry took me to lunch at City Grocery on the downtown square one last time. He was going to give a lecture at the Bennington Summer Workshop about “Oxford Writers.” He dressed up for the lunch in a white sport coat and read off questions he’d written about my novels in a little notebook. I floated up, filled with absolute joy. One of his observations about the theme of motherlessness in my books, remains for me, the most valuable thing ever said about my work.

coverThat lunch was the last time I saw Barry in full and vibrant health. When I went down for a party for him in 2000, he looked thin and pale. His Lymphoma, first diagnosed in 1999, had worsened. “I’ve fallen behind the pack,” he told me. In 2002 though, he’d gained enough strength to come to the New School in New York City, where I taught, to read from his new novel, Yonder Stands Your Orphan. The room was packed with New School and Columbia graduate students as well as the local literati: Wells Tower, Ben Marcus, Amy Hemple, and Barry’s old editor Gordon Lish, who during the questions and answers yelled out repeatedly, I Love You Barry!

After the reading, though, Barry had what he later called “an attack of a bad envious low key god on my person,” and checked himself into an uptown hospital. By the time I got to his room the next day, flowers in hand, he’d broken out of the place and flown back to Mississippi.

Later that year while visiting Oxford, I tried to see Barry, who was again in the hospital. The nurse told me he was too sick for visitors. A few weeks later, back in Brooklyn, I got a letter. He called me an angel for “attempting to visit my corpse when I was so desperately ill.” He went on to tell me that Christ had appeared to him. This was not as surprising as it sounds. We’d both come from religious backgrounds and had, at times, been able to share the more mystical details of our spiritual life. Christ was “both in my room and immortal as promised. This world is a beautiful thing to me now, friend,” he wrote, “and I want it to be for you too.”

Image: Joey Lauren Adams

When I heard he’d died in the spring of 2010, just a few days before the Festival of the Book meant to celebrate him, I flew down to Mississippi immediately. The event became a sort of extended wake, with panels of his high school friends and former students. There were many Grisham Fellows, myself included, that spoke of Barry’s generosity of spirit, his wit, his kick-ass phrasing. Lisa and Richard Howorth, owners of the local bookstore Square Books, and close friends of Barry’s, had a reception after the memorial service. We carried tea lights down to the nearby cemetery, stopping at William Faulkner’s tombstone to place a bumper sticker on the granite that read I’d Rather Be Reading Airships. We stood under a white tent beside the fresh mound of dirt covered with flowers. People told stories; Lisa said how Barry had called her a “closeted nice person,” another how in a faculty meeting after a professor had given details of his new literary theory class, Barry suggested the class be called “The End of Joy.” A former student told how if Barry felt your workshop story wasn’t up to snuff he’d sometimes skip over it entirely. “For God’s sake,” he’d say, “try and do better next time.”

I was too sad and thrilled to speak. My hero was dead, a writer who accomplished with Ray, along with his other books, what I still hoped to do, presenting the messed up and lovely world in raw and nimble prose, never flinching from the ugly, acknowledging joy, being honest about the tug toward God. “I think of rising in the Phantom at dawn and the dawn intense—orange, yellow, violet, blue-black—the day very present because it could be the day of your death.”

We mourners finally laid our candles among the flowers. The high wizard of language was dead. A man who had transformed his brokenness, rage, and grief into stories as moving and powerful, to me, as those in the Old Testament, a man who’d offered me kindness, creative instruction, and in his own way, spiritual advice. I remembered what he’d written at the end of the letter where he’d told me he’d seen Christ, words that I copied and keep on an index card in my wallet. “Your prose gets more elegant. Please maintain this my dear. It’s the only way out of the present trash except Christ himself. I know this.”

is the author of the memoir Easter Everywhere (Bloomsbury 2007, A New York Times Notable book) and the novels Milk (Bloomsbury 2005), Jesus Saves (Grove/Atlantic, 1997), Suicide Blonde (Atlantic Monthly Press, 1992), and Up Through the Water (Doubleday, 1989, A New York Times Notable book.) Her new novel, Sister Golden Hair, is out now from Tin House Books.