I 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.
Flash 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.”
His 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.
That 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.”
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.
Image via nndb.com