That long long, bloated epicene tract “The Waste Land” by Eliot (Barry Hannah)

Literature

That long long, bloated epicene tract “The Waste Land” by Eliot—the slideshow of some snug librarian on the rag—was nothing, unworthy, in the notes that every sissy throws away. I would not talk to students about it. You throw it down like pickled eggs with nine Buds and move on to giving it to the preacher’s wife on a hill while she spits on a photograph of her husband.

From Barry Hannah’s short story “Ride, Fly, Penetrate, Loiter.” Collected in Captain Maximus. (Captain Maximus is the narrator here, by the bye).

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Read Barry Hannah’s Short Story “The Spy of Loog Root”

Literature

THE OUTCAST NEPHEW was farhearinged. That is a difficult word and concept, but as with farsighted, his ear could not participate with sounds up close, only those far away, up to a quarter mile, a distance of course at which the rest of us townsmen can hear little at all except explosions and aircraft. It seemed to work that if voices were soft enough, faint enough, they could penetrate his tympana. One thought of the sound waves, but how, in his case? I don’t know, but imagine the tenderness of his ears, bent by the incredible bawling of noise he must have sensed up close, so that he ran away, holding both ears in agony, dispossessed of normal human intercourse.

He was one of those exceptional children, ghostly with long blond hair, to whom none of his family out at Loog Root Pass felt kin, except the mother. We never got, because of his affliction, a definite reckoning on his intelligence before he ran off, alone, into the hills.

Read the rest of Barry Hannah’s short story “The Spy of Loog Root” at The Oxford American.

Airships, Barry Hannah’s Cult Classic of Violent Humor

Books, Literature, Reviews, Writers

In his 1978 collection Airships, Barry Hannah sets stories in disparate milieux, from the northern front of the Civil War, to an apocalyptic future, to the Vietnam War, to strange pockets of the late-twentieth century South. Despite the shifts in time and place, Airships is one of those collections of short stories that feels somehow like an elliptical, fragmentary novel. There are the stories that correspond directly to each other — the opener “Water Liars,” for instance, features (presumably, anyway), the same group of old men as “All the Old Harkening Faces at the Rail.” The old men love to crony up, gossip, tell tall tales. An outsider spoils the fun in “Water Liars” by telling a truth more terrible than any lie; in “Harkening,” an old man shows off his new (much younger) bride. These stories are perhaps the simplest in the collection, the homiest, anyway, or at least the most “normal” (whatever that means), yet they are both girded by a strange darkness, both humorous and violent, that informs all of Airships.

We find that humor and violence in an outstanding trio of Civil War stories (or, more accurately, stories set during the Civil War). The narrator of “Dragged Fighting from His Tomb,” a Confederate infantryman relates a tale of heroic slaughter with a hypberbolic, phallic force. Observe—

I knew the blueboys thought they had me down and were about ready to come in. I was in that position at Chancelorsville. There should be about six fools, I thought. I made the repeater, I killed four, and the other two limped off. Some histrionic plumehead was raising his saber up and down on the top of a pyramid of crossties. I shot him just for fun. Then I brought up another repeater and sprayed the yard.

Later, the narrator defects, switches to the Union, and claims he kills Jeb Stuart, a figure that towers over the Civil War tales. The narrator of “Dragged Fighting” hates Stuart; the narrator of “Knowing He Was Not My Kind Yet I Followed” is literally in love with the General. In contrast to the narrator of “Dragged Fighting,” the speaker in “Knowing” — an avowed “sissy” whom the other soldiers openly detest — hates the violence and madness of war—

We’re too far from home. We are not defending our beloved Dixie anymore. We’re just bandits and maniacal. The gleam in the men’s eyes tells this. Everyone is getting crazier on the craziness of being simply too far from home for decent return. It is like Ruth in the alien corn, or a troop of men given wings over the terrain they cherished and taken by the wind to trees they do not know.

He despairs when he learns of Jeb Stuart’s death. In the final Civil War story, “Behold the Husband in His Perfect Agony,” a Union spy is given the task to communicate news of Stuart’s death through enemy lines. Rather than offering further explication, let me instead point you, dear reader, to more of Hannah’s beautiful prose, of which I have not remarked upon nearly enough. From “Behold the Husband” —

Isaacs False Corn, the Indian, the spy, saw Edison, the Negro, the contact, on the column of an inn. His coat was made of stitched newspapers. Near his bare feet, two dogs failed earnestly at mating. Pigeons snatched at the pieces of things in the rushing gutter. The rains had been hard.

The short, descriptive passage rests on my ears like a poem. Hannah, who worked with Gordon Lish, evinces in his writing again and again that great editor’s mantra that writing is putting one sentence after another.

Although set in the Vietnam War, “Midnight and I’m not Famous Yet” seems an extension of the Civil War stories. In it, an officer from a small Southern town goes slowly crazy from all the killing, yet, like the narrator of “Dragged Fighting,” he presents himself as a warrior. Above all though, he laments that the war has robbed him of some key, intermediary phase of his late youth, a phase he can’t even name—

The tears were out of my jaws then. Here we shot each other up. All we had going was the pursuit of horror. It seemed to me my life had gone straight from teen-age giggling to horror. I had never had time to be but two things, a giggler and a killer.

This ironic sense of a “pursuit of horror” pervades Airships, particularly in the collection’s most apocalyptic visions. “Eating Wife and Friends” posits an America where food shortages and material scarcity leads people to eating leaves and grass — and then each other. In “Escape to Newark,” the environment is wildly out of balance—

In August it’s a hundred fifty degrees. In December it’s minus twenty-five and three feet of snow in Mississippi. In April the big trees explode.

A plan is made to “escape” these conditions via a rocket, but of course there’s not enough fuel to get past Newark. In Airships, modes of flight are transcendent but ultimately transient. Gravity’s pull is heavy stuff.

Just as Hannah’s war stories are not really war stories, his apocalypse tales are really about human relationships, which he draws in humor, pathos, and dark cynicism. In “Green Gets It,” an old man repeatedly attempts his suicide, only to fail again and again. His suicide note, written to his daughter, is scathing and shocking and sad and hilarious and wise–

My Beloved Daughter,

Thanks to you for being one of the few who never blamed me for your petty, cheerless and malign personality. But perhaps you were too busy being awful to ever think of the cause. I hear you take self-defense classes now. Don’t you understand nobody could take anything from you without leaving you richer? If I thought rape would change you, I’d hire a randy cad myself. I leave a few dollars to your husband. Bother him about them and suffer the curse of this old pair of eyes spying blind at the minnows in the Hudson.

Your Dad,

Crabfood

Although Hannah explores the darkest gaps of the soul in Airships, he also finds there a shining kernel of love in the face of waste, depravity, violence, and indifference. This love evinces most strongly perhaps in Airships trio of long stories. These tales, which hover around 30 pages, feel positively epic set against the other stories in the collection, which tend to clock in between five and ten pages. The first long story, “Testimony of Pilot,” details the development of a boyhood friendship over a few decades. It captures the strange affections and rivalries and unnameable bonds and distances that connect and disconnect any two close friends. The second of the long tales is “Return to Return,” a tragicomic Southern drama in the Oedipal vein (with plenty of tennis and alcoholism to boot). As in “Testimony of Pilot,” Hannah finds some measure of redemption, or at least solace, for his characters in their loving friendship, yet nothing could be more unsentimental. The final long story, which closes the collection, is “Mother Rooney Unscrolls the Hurt,” a daring work of stream of consciousness that seems to both respond to — and revise — Katherine Anne Porter’s “The Jilting of Granny Weatherall.” The story concludes (and of course concludes the volume) with a vision of love that corresponds to the imagery of The Pietà, a kind of selflessness that ironically confirms the self as an entity that exists in relation to the pain of others.

I could keep writing of course — I’ve barely touched on Hannah’s surrealism, a comic weirdness that I’ve never seen elsewhere; it is Hannahesque, I suppose. Nor have I detailed Hannah’s evocations of regular working class folk, fighting and drinking and divorcing and raising children (not necessarily in that order). Airships is a world too rich and fertile to unpack in just one review, and I’ve already been blathering too long, I fear, when what I really want  to do is just outright implore you, kind reader, to find it and start reading it immediately. Very highly recommended.

[Editorial note: Biblioklept published a version of this review on March 20th, 2011]

Barry Hannah Visits a Louisiana Leper Colony

Literature, Writers

Barry Hannah visits a Louisiana leper colony in “Old Terror, New Hearts,” republished this week in Oxford Americans; the piece originally ran in the October/November 1995 issue of the magazine. Opening paragraphs:

It was a massive Federalist plantation, lazy and handsome among two-century oaks and palm trees. You could imagine FDR had just visited to cut a ribbon last week. I had heard throughout my life the curious rumor of a leper “colony” down in south Louisiana. This news reached me when I was a boy in Clinton, Mississippi, and one did not know quite what to do with it. Colony evoked folks lost in an exotic fastness. Leper of course was as bad as it got, poor devils. I had a sense of these creatures execrated and driven onto some isle in a vicious swamp. In that, my young imagination was not far wrong. Louisiana was alarming and peculiar anyway. There were plenty of Catholics, many seemed touched by at least mild cases of voodoo, and adults went public with their gaudiest dreams.

Nothing at the time was more peculiar to me than the armored mammal of Louisiana, the armadillo, which I had seen dead on the road as I traveled to relatives in Baton Rouge. It was a thing aggressively obsolete in animal history but still mucking its way along, its stupid ranks torn to flat bits by modern autos on pavement laid down through the bogs. I could not know how closely related these creatures were to the poor lepers themselves. Among animals, only armadillos have leprosy. Among mankind, nobody has suffered opprobrium for six thousand years like the leper. At Carville, where I finally got over forty years of mildly curious ignorance, I saw the doubloons from last year’s Mardi Gras at Carville were imprinted on one side with an armadillo. On the other was the Federalist infirmary building: Gillis W.Long Hansen’s Disease Center1921. Hansen was the Norwegian doctor who first isolated the leprosy bacillus in the late nineteenth century. In 1921 the state leprosarium was taken over by the Public Health Service.

Now it is the Service’s last remaining hospital. In that state of advanced idiocy that has made me a living so far and may be the birthright of a Mississippi writer, I asked a therapist working with two Asian-American patients after their hand surgery if he was a flight surgeon, his uniform so naval and all. He explained, as further did Captain Jim Birke, most formidable pedorthist, that the Public Health Service originated after the Revolutionary War as a naval medical branch. Thus the costume of the Surgeon General, which has baffled others too tactful to ask.

Read the rest of Hannah’s essay “Old Terror, New Hearts.”

Barry Hannah/Stanley Elkin (Books Acquired, 5.29.2013)

Books, Literature, Writers

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I was thrilled to find a somewhat tattered copy of Barry Hannah’s Geronimo Rex, after trolling the [huge, unorganized] “HA” section of my favorite used bookstore. Years ago, I found like seven of Hannah’s books used there and picked up only one. I devoured it, returned, the rest were gone. Regrets, regrets. I will review this maybe at the end of the summer (?) — until then:  reviews of Hannah’s AirshpsHey Jack!, and Ray.

I’ve never read Stanley Elkin, but sort of feel like I should. Mr. BLCKDGRD (-a, -o, -e) suggested The Franchiser as a good starting point (although he said that The Magic Kingdom is his pers. fav. {disney fan?}). Some dude named Billy Gass wrote the forward. 

Also pictured: Two weird black gourds that grew in my garden, right in the midst of my cucumber patch. Also: Kodiak Ridge Lager, a weak lager with a beautiful blue an’ gold can.

“Today, there’s no present to people” (Barry Hannah)

Books, Literature, Writers

My aunts told wonderful stories. Not to me, but to each other. We had a very strong family. My mother’s sisters loved each other intensely. The uncles loved each other intensely. Those were the days when it meant something to travel, when people were still grinning because you could drive a car over a hundred miles. So when they got together they really narrated. Children were supposed to be quiet, so we’d all go to bed, but I’d still hear these stories going into the night and people’s laughter. It was a delightful way to go to sleep on Christmas or Thanksgiving. They had huge senses of humor. Humor meant everything to them because they had all been through the war and the depression, and now they had decent work and jobs. I think there’s no kind of happiness and laughter as after you’ve made something after a tough grade.

I was born in Clinton, Mississippi, which had 1,500–2,500 people when I was growing up—a village. Now it’s impossible to go back to these places because they’re not there anymore. My generation, we were the war children, and so there’s just hurt all over the continent because there’s no place to go home to.

Today, there’s no present to people. Nobody wants to listen for very long to anybody talking, except in certain places—in a bar, in a confessional, or maybe a shrink’s office. All they say is, Yeah, yeah, yeah. Men don’t even tell dirty jokes much anymore.

Nobody stops to talk except the instructors at college who’re paid for it. So it was a much more primitive time back then. More heartfelt. A more patient time, and I was the beneficiary of that.

From The Paris Review’s interview with Barry Hannah.

 

“Why I Write” — Barry Hannah

Books, Literature, Writers

I always experience a mild depression whenever I type up what I have written. This act seems redundant. The work has already been done. I adore the praise of the public, no mistake. But the primary motive must be unpublic. Much more, I’d guess, the inner journey of the imagination itself. There is the ecstasy. The rest is simply good. Some money, a little fame. Not to be rolled over by time like a crab in the surf. Etcetera.

I write out of a greed for lives and language. A need to listen to the orchestra of living. It is often said that a writer is more alive than his peers. But I believe he might also be a sort of narcoleptic who requires constant waking up by his own imaginative work. He is closer to sleep and dream, and his memory is more haunted, thus more precise.

Read the rest of Barry Hannah’s essay “Why I Write” at The Oxford American.

Barry Hannah on Southern Literature

Books, Literature, Writers

From The Paris Review’s interview with Barry Hannah

INTERVIEWER

Do you think you can still say there is a Southern literature? That people aren’t just hanging onto something that no longer really exists?

HANNAH

Yes. Remember that the South—and this is what people forget—the South is sixteen states and it’s the biggest region. It and the West are enormous country. Of the sixteen states, from Texas on up to Virginia, there is a stamp that means love of language and stories. But that might be the extent of the similarities. Texas lit is nothing like Virginia lit. The Tidelands is nothing like Appalachian. We’re talking about an enormous nation. We’re talking about people who love blacks more than Northerners. We’re talking about people who deeply hate them more than anybody in the world. So, yes, that’s Southern lit but that’s like saying—oh, let us say German lit. Heavily philosophic is what we usually think.

But the Germans also command that you have fun. So we can say certain things about Germans but there are huge varieties, and Germany’s much smaller than the South.

 

Gordon Lish: “Don’t Believe Me”

Books, Literature, Writers

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From “A Conversation with Gordon Lish,” an outstanding interview between the writer/editor and Rob Trucks. The interview is really amazing—Lish talks at length about his writing process, his sense of competition, his friendships with Don DeLillo and Cynthia Ozick, his interest in Julia Kristeva, his feelings for Harold Brodkey and Barry Hannah—and Blood Meridian. Lots and lots of Blood Meridian.

I chose this little nugget because I think it reads almost like a perfect little Lish story—or at least, it seems to perfectly express Lish’s voice, which if you haven’t heard it, my god, get thee to his own reading of his Collected Fictions. Again, the whole interview is well worth your time if you have any interest in Lish. It includes this insight into the man’s fiction:

dickbook

Barry Hannah on Denis Johnson’s Book Jesus’ Son

Books, Literature, Writers

Certain books, the ones I’m always looking for and hardly ever finding—true codes of entry into other hard spiritualities—you have to read while you’re walking, say, even through a crowded airport. Such was Denis Johnson’s Jesus’ Son. Those of us who’ve come out of the serious dope-and-drink world may have forgotten the strange poetry and curious religious cast of events, but Johnson hasn’t. It takes an authentic poet to catch the strange, tragic hope and cheer as well as the squalor of that life, and Johnson surely is one.

Barry Hannah on Denis Johnson’s Jesus’ Son; from the January, 1994 issue of SPIN.