Barry Hannah's Long Shadow

Erika Larsen
by Wells Tower - Mississippi - November 2008

How a wild man from Mississippi changed the course of Southern fiction

Read "Water Liars," a short story by Barry Hannah

One afternoon in July, the author Barry Hannah took to the small roads south of Oxford, Mississippi, where he lives, to visit the grave of friend and fellow writer Larry Brown. Hannah hadn’t been out this way in some months. He missed an important turn at a place called the Yocona River Inn and had to stop at a country store to ask directions.

“Excuse me,” Hannah said to the woman behind the counter. “Can you tell me which way is the Yocona Inn? We’re trying to find our friend Larry Brown’s place.”

The woman returned a vacant look.

“Larry Brown—he was a very fine writer,” Hannah pressed on. “He lived right around here. Do you read his books?”

The clerk did a weird abased shrug but didn’t answer. Hannah paid for his Coke and cigarettes and departed, vexed.

“It’s just unbelievable to me, the lack of pride and curiosity,” he said, pulling his Jeep Cherokee onto the blacktop. “If the people out here should be reading anybody, it ought to be Larry Brown. This is what he wrote about—these people, life out on these roads, and in these little stores. I guess they’re busy with their televisions. Man, it just nauseates me. It’s sick and dumb.”

Southern letters suffered a cruel deprivation when a heart attack took Larry Brown in November 2004. Brown, a former captain at the Oxford Fire Department, wrote straight, bold books about lives gone wrong in north Mississippi. That the clerk did not recognize Hannah himself, arguably the Deep South’s best living writer you have perhaps never read, bothered him not at all, but to a highly partial observer, the oversight seemed about like Hemingway strolling unrecognized through the streets of Key West.

Barry Hannah’s fame is of a peculiar kind. Ask people about him, and either they’ll say they’ve never heard the name (despite his nominations for both the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize) or they’ll get a feverish, ecstatic look before they seize you by the lapels and start reeling off cherished passages of his work. Echoes of familiar Southern tropes appear in Hannah’s novels and short stories: outlandish violence, catfish, desperate souls driven half mad by lust and drink. But in Hannah’s fiction the South becomes an alien place, narrated in a dark comic poetry you’ve never heard before, peopled with characters that outflank and outwit the flyspecked conventions of Southern lit. A Civil War scribe whose limbs—save his writing arm—are shot off. A serial killer who looks like Conway Twitty and makes his victim suck a football (“moan around on it some”) before beheading him. A Wild West widow who lashes a personal ad to a buzzard in hopes of finding a man. In Hannah’s panoramas, you’ll find hints of William Faulkner, rumbles of Charles Bukowski, and the tongue-in-cheek grotesquerie of David Lynch. But the fierce inventiveness of Hannah’s prose makes him something sui generis entirely, a writer who renders the project of comparison a farce.

“We stand in awe of him,” says the novelist Richard Ford. “There’s an electricity that galvanizes his sentences and connects one word to the next that basically creates a whole new syntax….He just completely rejiggered everything that the term South calls to mind. Whatever affected all the writers who are the sons and daughters of William Faulkner, Barry somehow eluded.”

His departure from Dixie’s literary main is not accidental, Hannah said, but grows from a violent allergy to the antebellum banalities that can plague the Southern mode.

“The canned dream of the South is something I’ve resisted my entire career; it disgusts me,” Hannah said. “And being Southern isn’t always a graceful adjective; it’ll kill you sometimes. Often, it’s shorthand for ‘Don’t bother reading this because it’s just gonna be a lot of porches and banjos.’”

Hannah may bridle at being herded into regional corrals, yet you’d be hard-pressed to turn up a belle-lettrist below the Mason-Dixon Line who doesn’t applaud him for jumping the proprieties of traditional Southern lit.