A few years ago I received a letter from Barry Hannah, written in a shaky hand, on University of Mississippi stationery. I was working at the Paris Review, and he was writing to submit a short story by one of his students. It was a generous gesture, and a rare one, too—you'd be surprised how infrequently authors submit their favorite students' work. (The students might be even more surprised.) But the most striking thing about the letter was the way Hannah introduced himself. "I'm not accustomed to this kind of thing, but I'm the author of Geronimo Rex, Airships, Ray, High Lonesome . . . " An introduction was unnecessary—after all, he had been the subject of a major interview in the magazine just a few years earlier. It's hard to imagine, say, Larry McMurtry beginning a letter, "I'm the author of Lonesome Dove, The Last Picture Show, Terms of Endearment . . . " And Hannah was, as McMurtry himself has said, "the best fiction writer to appear in the South since Flannery O'Connor." It's possible Hannah was being excessively modest, but I suspect it's more likely that he figured whatever kid opened his letter might not, in fact, know who he was.
The sad thing was that Hannah had good reason to think this. Although he was one of the few hugely innovative writers of our time—he suffered a fatal heart attack on March 1—he never had the readership or popularity of many of his peers, despite winning their adulation. Truman Capote called him "the maddest writer in the U.S.A." Long, Last, Happy: New and Selected Stories is accompanied by unrestrained praise from John Grisham, Jim Harrison, Richard Ford, and Philip Roth (who in a single sentence compares Hannah to Mark Twain, William Faulkner, and O'Connor). These encomiums were a mixed blessing. Hannah couldn't shake such lukewarm, even backhanded euphemisms as "southern writer" and "writer's writer." As Harrison said after Hannah's death, "I always thought he would become a massively famous novelist, which didn't quite happen, except in the minds of other writers."
In the alleys there were sighs and derisions and the slide of dice in the brick dust. His vision was impaired. One of his eyes had been destroyed in the field near Atlanta as he stood there with his binoculars.
A stingy grammarian might strike the repetition of the preposition that brackets the first sentence: "In the alleys . . . in the brick dust." Our grammarian might also have a problem in the second sentence with the use of "his" instead of the character's name, which we learn several lines later is False Corn (only on the next page, following this backward logic, does Hannah finally give us the man's full name: Isaacs False Corn). We can piece it together, but Hannah doesn't make it easy. This kind of thing can discombobulate casual readers. And without them you can't sell a massive number of books.
The editor most important to him was Gordon Lish, who published much of Hannah's early short fiction in Esquire. These stories were collected in Airships, the book commonly cited as the purest expression of his style: freewheeling and exuberant, verging on outright deranged. In "Love Too Long," someone slips LSD into the punch at a university party, and a professor starts to lose it:
I'd like to stick her brain. I'll bet her brain would be better than her crack. I'd like to have her hair falling around my honker. I'd love to pull on those ears with silver loops hanging around, at, on, above—what is it?—them.
Airships is the collection most prominently represented in this new book, which seems appropriate. But the surprise of Long, Last, Happy, which republishes the best work from each of his four collections (as well as four previously uncollected stories), is how consistent Hannah remained. In obituaries, the line about Hannah was that his later books, like High Lonesome (1996), became increasingly "reflective" and "controlled." Hannah was diagnosed with lymphoma in 1995 and underwent chemotherapy; in interviews, he talked of having a vision of Christ in the hospital and turning toward religion. It's true that some of his later stories have an elegiac, tender aspect to them, particularly "Uncle High Lonesome," about a boy who goes fishing with his intimidating uncle and learns that the man is deathly afraid of deep water. But these qualities mark his early work as well. Two of the best stories in Airships, "Testimony of Pilot" and "Midnight and I'm Not Famous Yet," are memorials to brave men who die young. What makes these stories so vivid is that Hannah's characters are never more alive than in their tragedies: "Fools! Fools! I thought. Love it! Love the loss as well as the gain. . . .We saw victory and defeat, and they were both wonderful."
Hannah never lost his high exuberance. Even during his final years, in stories about church arsonists and Dexedrine-hopped fighter pilots, he was writing sentences like "The fire caught up in all points of the compass, running, almost speaking in snaps of twigs mad orange all suddenly" and "I was a child in an illuminated storybook, way off in a foreign brilliant home. The whale pulled on me and Persia was singing to me from across the water." Hannah as narrator is wild-eyed and shifty—his writing bursts with digressions, anecdotes, stories within stories—but reading Long, Last, Happy, the stories themselves tend to blur. Three of them involve fishermen catching the biggest fish of their lives, the Confederate cavalry general Jeb Stuart makes an appearance in four, and vengeance-seeking women are everywhere. There is an interchangeability to Hannah's work; in even his greatest stories there are paragraphs that could be swapped with paragraphs from other stories without disruption. The lasting impression is instead of the tunefulness of Hannah's prose. "Music is essential," he said in his 2004 Paris Review interview. "Writing and music are two different mediums, but musical phrases can give you sentences that you didn't think you ever had."
Counterpoint is the strategy he relies on most heavily. He is constantly alternating between opposites. High and low language, for starters: "The whole race was numb and bad, walking on thin skin over a cesspool . . . nobody much was worth a shit." He shuffles as easily between the sacred and the profane. The most memorable example comes in a letter drafted in the barracks by General Stuart to his wife in "Knowing He Was Not My Kind Yet I Followed"; Hannah swings from patriotism to porno in the space of a comma:
The only thing that keeps me going on my mission is the sacred inalienable right of the Confederacy to be the Confederacy, Christ Our Lord, and the memory of your hot hairy jumping nexus when I return.
He also moves often between generality and specificity, from philosophy to practice. A lot of Hannah's humor comes from these sudden turns:
What was love but lack of judgment?
So if God judged, he was not love, eh?
This sort of stuff was the curse of the thinking class. You went away to college and came back with such as that to nag your sleep till you dropped.
Best to shut up and live.
Best to shoot anonymous innocent citizens with an air rifle.
The character in "Hey, Have You Got a Cig, the Time, the News, My Face?" isn't joking about the air rifle. He goes around shooting strangers for fun. There is always the chance in Hannah's stories that at any moment a bowl of Lysol will be thrown in someone's face, an M-80 will blow up in someone's eye, a woman will be killed by a crack addict during a bank robbery, a man will drive through the bay window of his daughter's living room and run her over, or a hijacker's bomb will explode an airplane, causing the passengers and crew to be "splattered like flesh sparklers over the water."
The sense of danger in Hannah's work goes beyond his manic plots and haywire digressions. He is most comfortable on the verge of chaos, a convertible with its brake lines cut racing down a never-ending hill. But he never crashes. This is what makes his accomplishment so remarkable. If you flip to a random page of Long, Last, Happy, you may not be able to tell what story you're reading—you may not care either—but you will recognize the voice. In the collection's final unpublished story, "Out-tell the Teller," Hannah writes, "Poetry, I think, is the answer. To live that zigzagged deathlessness of the poem." Hannah lived it, and the music he made will endure in all its zig-zagged glory.
Nathaniel Rich's novel, The Mayor's Tongue (Riverhead, 2008), is now available in paperback. He lives in New Orleans.