One of my strongest memories involves ducking behind a bush to avoid a patrolling MP. The year is 1998; I’m 10 years old. My friend and I are dueling with cap guns designed to look like Uzis. My friend, a native of Nebraska whose father works in the Army, shoots caps at me through skeletal bushes and over the hoods of cars. We battle our way through a parking lot, and as we do I construct a number of scenarios to explain why, despite our friendly history, we now want to maim each other with high-tech explosives and bullets. I tell myself I’m a young James Bond, hurled abruptly and senselessly into training. I’m a private in the Allied armies caught up in a skirmish in North Africa. I’m a CIA agent, tasked only with taking out “evil” in a faraway, suffocating jungle. I’m all of these things — that is, until my friend tackles me.
“What the hell?” I say. At this point I’m old enough that swears are less thrilling than routine. “What was that?”
“Don’t talk.” My friend gives a signal to follow. I comply, and as we crawl behind a bush and huddle side by side, it strikes me that this is the closest I’ll ever get to real warfare.
My friend says an MP on a road nearby staged firefights like ours as a kid. One day an eccentric soldier, unaware that his cap guns were toys, upheld the safety of his community by shooting the MP in the leg. Ever since that life-marring day, the MP walked with a limp, his gait a jarring reminder of the perils of play-acting too well. It fell to us to avoid him, my friend explained, because the MP “went ballistic” when he spotted young boys using cap guns. I didn’t know what that entailed, exactly, but I knew it was very bad, so I hid my gun under my T-shirt and prayed for the MP to stalk away.
I bring this up now because lately I’ve felt that it helped forge my taste in literature. Not the cap gun incident specifically, but the many incidents like it — I went to school on an Army base for several years, and I grew to believe my time there unavoidably skewed my perspective. To call Army kids your classmates, then as now, meant spending great balefuls of time with rural Heartlanders and Southerners. It meant having friends who blew whole weekends in paintball games with Vietnam vets. It meant that dumb kids brought hunting knives into school on a perilously regular basis. In a lot of ways, I was the odd man out back then, thanks largely to the fact that my parents were both academics, but my classmates often took precedence over the diktats of my tweedy home life. Even now, my parents like to tease me for using the word “dang” till I was 12.
In other words, I was never quite able to reinvent myself as an East Coaster, which is probably why, earlier this year, I fell for Barry Hannah. In an interview published in 2009, Wells Tower wrote that Hannah “drives people to fanaticism,” a statement which ranks with “banned for obscenity” in the realm of powerful endorsements. (Same goes for his line that “any one of Hannah’s sentences picked at random holds more hope and joy than the entire self-help section at the O’Hare Barnes and Noble.”) I read these hosannas and picked up High Lonesome with an urgency reserved for grave injuries. Within the space of three pages, I could see Hannah’s talent for odd phrasing: a role in a college play requires much “dramatic amplitude;” a slacker confesses that “through [him] runs an inveterate refractoriness, almost a will to lose;” and a young boy complains with a juvenile bitterness about the ravings of a “turkey-throated aunt.” Nobody can dismiss these as novel deployments of well-trod constructions and ideas. Instead, they’re signals of a dizzying new dialect, the language of a nation-state of one.
Although High Lonesome had sold me, I knew it was a late-career production. I wanted to see if Hannah’s first collection would hit me as hard as its successor. Unlike High Lonesome, Airships consists of stories so short they rival Donald Barthelme’s for brevity. They’re not as dour as the stories in High Lonesome, and their plotlines are far more calamitous, but the stories in Airships are built with the same knack for joyfully addlepated wordplay. In “Testimony of Pilot,” a young boy, a “violent experimental chemist,” learns “the sulfur, potassium nitrate and charcoal mixture for gunpowder” before his 11th birthday. In “Quo Vadis, Smut?”, vigilantes drink a bottle of gin contaminated with bits of glass. We learn that the glass flakes “burn constantly but do not kill.” In “Return to Return,” a stroke victim coughs out “lengths” of phlegm, and when he later shows up in a vision coupled carnally with a character’s mother, he appears in a cemetery “so [the stroke victim] won’t have far to fall when he explodes with fornication, the old infantryman of lust.”
Everything I quoted here points to a mind that knows the grotesque when it sees it. For Barry Hannah, all human beings, regardless of their station, find themselves inevitably pitched into a battle at birth. His violence is key to why I find his fiction seductive. When I read him, he calls me back, to a time not long ago that nevertheless seems distant, when the people I hung around didn’t care a whit about prestige or the bull of the thinking class. Their fathers were off in Bosnia, and they didn’t need our crap. It’s fitting that Hannah’s vagrants express this better than I can:
There is not even such a thing as a personal soul in many countries. The souls were dead already waiting for Marx, all he was was the final announcement. I am dying for you, I have had hell so you may carry on. Love me, every breathing motherfucker around me. I give you my lungs and heart to eat thereof. I taste like a sword.
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In December 2009, while home for the holidays in Meridian, MS, the town where Barry Hannah was born, I had a sudden feeling he was going to die soon. The feeling did not cause me to grieve in advance for one of my favorite writers. It caused me to buy a used copy of his out-of-print novel Nightwatchmen on Amazon before his death jacked up the price.
Barry Hannah sometimes jokingly referred to the book in third-person as “Barry Hannah’s ‘lost’ novel.” Published by Viking in 1973, Nightwatchmen was widely disparaged by critics, sold poorly, and, at the author’s wish, has never been back in print. That Hannah died two months after I bought a copy — his poor health was widely known, which is to say, my premonition wasn’t inexplicable — kept me from reading Nightwatchmen until recently. Over the past few years I preferred to know there was still one of his novels I could experience for the first time.
Now that I have read it, I’m glad I waited. Unobstructed by the pall of his death, it is easier to see the connection Hannah’s second book has with many of those that followed, the light it casts on what was to come.
Part academic satire and part murder mystery, Nightwatchmen is set at the fictional Southwestern Mississippi University, which, according to the jacket copy, “is under siege by the Absurd.” Someone known as The Knocker is terrorizing campus. This individual sneaks up behind people and conks them on the back of their heads. “He took no money from them. He took no tests or materials,” says one character of the situation. “He knocked out two women. He did not molest these women, either of them; just let them lie unconscious.” Matters escalate when two night watchmen are killed, their heads left in toilet bowls, badges rammed into each of their gaping mouths. No one knows if the person going around knocking heads is the same person going around cutting them off.
A makeshift investigation into the series of crimes is conducted by a man named Thorpe Trove, the owner of a mansion that serves as a boarding house for many graduate students from the school. Sympathetic confidant, avuncular intermediary, and semi-passive observer, Trove is to his tenants what Edna Garrett was to Natalie, Jo, Blair, and Tootie on The Facts of Life. His oddball narration frames this oddball book. “I have hair like a ball of dead orange leaves, purplish prescription glasses which I wear year round, and, I do fear, a sweet and clever look.” Scattered throughout his narration, though, are tape recordings Trove makes of people associated with the crimes, part of his effort to catch The Knocker and/or The Killer. Those recordings become miniature character studies, as seen in this passage spoken by a graduate student:
One of these days I will meet a girl with a sunburned navel who will see me burning up my birth certificate and my Ph.D. degree in a small fire on the beach and she will be enchanted by this, because it will have great style, and she will throw in her ticket with me, and we will make the present burn, my friends; we will eat one another like seafood.
The taped narratives provide little help in finding the culprit. Toward the end of the book, however, after Hurricane Camille destroys parts of campus as well as Thorpe Trove’s mansion, the mystery of the knocking and killing recedes in importance compared to how the characters in Nightwatchmen, following the disaster, continue on with their lives.
If the novel, judging by such a plot summary, sounds crazy, that only means you are not. Barry Hannah, after all, was someone who drunkenly shot an arrow through the door of his wife’s house during their separation, who dried out in Alabama’s state asylum, who, on his release, immediately returned with a carton of cigarettes for his fellow inmates. Guy like that knows from crazy.
The misbehavior that contributed to Hannah’s renown, his dipsomania and his irascibility, his prurience and his hoplophilia, is as well remembered as Nightwatchmen is forgotten. “I sat a princedom of literary fame,” he once wrote. “Then turned beast and threw it all away.” Nonetheless not enough has been made of how often people say much has been made of the Bad Barry. He was a man whose life was so colorful — shooting holes in the floorboard of his car, pulling a gun on a classroom of students — that, when people tell those stories, they don’t preface them with, “Tell me if you’ve heard this one,” but rather something more along the lines of, “Even though I know you’ve heard this one, it’s so good I’m going to tell it to you anyway.”
A similar concept applies to his fiction. People don’t recommend Barry Hannah. They simply say, “Airships,” and wait for the other person to nod and repeat the title as confirmation that they, too, have read Airships and loved it.
During the time he worked on his second novel Hannah was in a liminal state as an artist and as a person. His writing was coming together as his marriage was falling apart. Nightwatchmen is therefore both artistically and personally a transitional work for Hannah. Its borderline campy plot and rotating cast of narrators reveal it as a juncture in more than chronology between its predecessor and successor. The former, Geronimo Rex, is a traditional bildungsroman that, albeit episodic, centers on one protagonist, while the latter, Airships, is collection of unhinged short stories with fragmented, disjunctive points of view. Moreover, the tape recordings in Nightwatchmen are a physical incarnation of what would become a metaphysical approach in Hannah’s fourth book, Ray: the representation of many different times and many different voices within a singular moment.
Even at the sentence level Nightwatchmen displays the shift in Hannah toward polyphonic delirium. “I have an intuition that genius is going to hit my brain like a comet if I can wait just a few more years,” says one character, using language indicative of the author’s previous work, to which another character, using language indicative of the author’s future work, responds, “When it does could I maybe stand nearby and eat some of the raw light?”
One of the narrators in Nightwatchmen is Harriman Monroe, a drunken, ribald poet who, when asked what he writes about, gives an answer applicable to Hannah’s own work. “This happy disease my life. This hagridden bathroom epic. What I can balance on my peniscycle.” Monroe was formerly the protagonist of Geronimo Rex. Such a technique is typical of Hannah. In the daisy chain of his career he often hooked the bloom of a new book through stem of a past one. The novel The Tennis Handsome is umbilically tied to the stories “Return to Return” and “Midnight and I’m Not Famous Yet,” for example, as is Yonder Stands Your Orphan to “Water Liars,” “All the Old Harkening Faces at the Rail,” and “High-Water Railers.”
Still, despite the presence of Monroe in Nightwatchmen, Hannah invented a wholly new and different protagonist in Thorpe Trove. Consider his name. The word “trove” is derived from “treasure trove,” which in turn derives from the Anglo-French tresor trové, or “found treasure.” This character so lost in life has a name that means found.
At the time he was writing the novel Hannah could have been considered lost as well. Early on in Nightwatchmen Trove visits a library:
There were only two rows, one marked F and the other O. I asked about this and the librarian officer — who was reeking with gin — told me F was for Fuck Books and the O was for Other. I asked him which he would recommend. He said one was for animals and the other for intellectuals. I would have to choose for myself. It was a hard choice because I didn’t know myself — which one I really was.
Hannah was facing a similar choice in his work. Fuck Book or Other? Animal or intellectual? To find himself as a writer he had to finish what is now a lost book.
Although Nightwatchmen isn’t one of Hannah’s best novels, it contains traces of them, the expansive and youthful qualities of Geronimo Rex and the elegiac qualities of Hey Jack! and Boomerang, with just enough of Ray’s screwball nihilism to leaven the mix. This novel can be seen as the terroir, all the subsequent ones its varietals. With its blend of parody and pulp, Nightwatchmen — a game of Clue gone collegiate, Porky’s meets Rashomon, a chicken-fried Agatha Christie whodunit — foreshadows the use of tropes from the western genre in Never Die. Its large cast of characters predates the same feature in Yonder Stands Your Orphan. Its widespread array of events predates the same feature in The Tennis Handsome.
Those features are unfortunately the least successful ones in the book. Its cast of characters is a bit too large. The purpose of its use of genre tropes remains too much in flux. Its array of events is a bit too widespread.
Even Hannah agreed. In an interview titled “Bat Out of Hell,” with the calm bemusement typical of him when looking back at his stormy years, he said, “I’d like to rewrite my second book, Nightwatchmen, because I wrote it under hurried circumstance on the heels of my first book. It had no editing, and with just a few changes on the order of less equals more it could be a fine book.” Such regrets notwithstanding, that the book was a failure isn’t as important, I believe, so much as that it was a necessary failure, one that deserves to be read.
Barry Hannah died of a heart attack on March 1, 2010. Ever since that day, I’ve wondered how Hannah would have felt about whatever dimwit, half-wit, or nitwit who, after paying more than $40 for a copy, might try to redeem a novel he himself disparaged. He probably would have had a good laugh.
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Like any number of people who love fiction, I tend to re-read my favorite books. It is not, however, common for me to read the same book twice in one year, and yet this year I’ve read two books twice—Christian TeBordo’s The Awful Possibilities and Adam Novy’s The Avian Gospels. I want to say that these books remind a reader that his life is fleeting, that he’ll be separated from everything he loves pretty soon, that he’ll disappear forever and rot and be forgotten, but I worry that might sound like overstatement (if not—ick—oversharement), or, even worse, that it might lead you, the Millions visitor, fellow lover of fiction, to assume the books are unfun reads, when, in fact, they are playful and joy-bringing. What reminds you you’ll die is their in-your-face aliveness, their assured immortality.
Novy’s The Avian Gospels is a novel in two short volumes about a foreign boy in an unnamed city-state that borders Hungary and Oklahoma. The city-state is run by a despot, its local Gypsies invent first- and second-wave ska, the boy falls in love with the despot’s daughter, and when a plague of birds descends upon all of them, only the boy and his father (who are much at odds) can protect the city-state from total destruction, for the boy and his father can both control birds. Just to be clear: the foregoing two sentences contain no spoilers. All I’ve described is in play by page 20. Did I mention this novel’s really funny? It’s funny in the way Blood Meridian is funny, and American Tabloid, and In the Penal Colony.
The only kind of book that’s harder for me to describe than a good collection of short stories, is a great collection of short stories, and Christian TeBordo’s The Awful Possibilities is a great collection of short stories. As in Wallace’s Girl With Curious Hair, Salinger’s Nine Stories, and Hannah’s Airships, the subject matter in The Awful Possibilities varies widely, piece to piece. There’s the story about the girl who’s kidnapped by kidney thieves, the one about suburban hardcore rappers, the motivational-speaker-who-needs-a-new-wallet story, and the set of instructions for abusing your child that’s told by….See? It’s hard. I’m having a hard time. I’m doing TeBordo’s work very little justice—about as much justice as I’d be doing Mark Twain’s if, in summarizing Huckleberry Finn, I said no more than, “It’s a book about this kid.” I’m thinking that the only hope I have of even beginning to get across how stellar the experience of reading The Awful Possibilities is, is to give you the beginning of The Awful Possibilities, then get out of the way and say goodnight:
Imagine you’re planning your own school shooting. Imagine you have good reasons, and it’s none of that I-play-too-many-video-games-and-listen-to-Marilyn-Manson-because-no-one-likes-me bullshit. You’re in tenth grade and you do okay in classes and you’ve got plenty of friends for what it’s worth but it’s not worth much to you. You live in Brooklyn. Brooklyn, Iowa. There are no Jews in Brooklyn, Iowa. Keep that in mind.
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Kyle Minor is the author of In the Devil’s Territory, a collection of short stories. His recent work appears in Best American Mystery Stories 2008, Surreal South, and Random House’s Twentysomething Essays by Twentysomething Writers anthology.Five books that knocked the top of my head off in 2008:1. Knockemstiff, by Donald Ray Pollock – Eighteen wild and wooly stories from southern Ohio, in which a lifetime’s experience is distilled to nine or twelve pages of the most thrilling sentences I’ve ever read. If you liked Denis Johnson’s Jesus’ Son, Barry Hannah’s Airships, or Mark Richard’s Charity, Knockemstiff is the book for you.2. The Seamstress of Hollywood Boulevard, by Erin McGraw – The elegance here is Flaubertian, the prose flawless, and the story (loosely based upon the true story of McGraw’s disappeared-then-reappeared grandmother) is every bit as thrilling as anything Stephen King will serve up this year.3. Sabbath’s Theater, by Philip Roth – The best comic novel from the best comic novelist in America.4. American Pastoral, by Philip Roth – The best serious novel from the best serious novelist in America.5. Max Perkins: Editor of Genius, by Scott Berg – A biography of Maxwell Perkins, the legendary editor who held the hands of Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Thomas Wolfe, as they made their way together from obscurity toward literary permanence. I can’t imagine this book thrilled any reader in 1978, the year of its release, any more than it thrilled me thirty years later.More from A Year in Reading 2008