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REMEMBERING BARRY HANNAH (19422010)


In “Testimony of Pilot,” there is a character named Quadberry. Quadberry is the hero. If John Quisenberry never flew an F-14 in battle, Quadberry is free to launch himself off aircraft carriers, refuel in the air and ruin half of Hué. Quadberry, like Hannah, also plays trumpet. Fiction is real life done right. “Good truths always have fantasy attached,” Hannah said in The Paris Review. “The deep stuff has fantasy automatically. The awe and wonder of a child.”

One evening at the bookstore, Barry Hannah bought a book. I was the cashier, and I asked him, mid-transaction, if he had contributed anything to any of Altman’s screenplays. My interest was innocent enough, but the question was unprofessional. If Hannah had ignored me, he was well within his rights.

I had a theory about Robert Altman’s western McCabe & Mrs. Miller. In one scene in particular, Warren Beatty, as John McCabe, stands alone, straightening his tie in a mirror. McCabe, a delicate but enterprising frontiersman, is sad that Constance Miller (Julie Christie), the sophisticated owner of a brothel, cannot see him for the man he is. “I got poetry in me,” he says to himself, and it sounds like something a Barry Hannah character would say.

Hannah smiled at me as I put his book in a bag. “I may have contributed a line or two to Nashville,” he grinned, and left. I should have checked my facts beforehand. Ray—the book that got Altman interested—was not published until 1980. McCabe & Mrs. Miller was released in 1971, and Nashville in 1975.

So Barry Hannah had a sense of humor. His 1983 novel The Tennis Handsome begins with two short stories from his 1978 collection Airships, “Return to Return” and “Midnight and I’m Not Famous Yet.” When he expanded “Return to Return” into the book’s first chapter, Hannah amended an early encounter between a teenage girl, Carina, and Carina’s paramour, the ungainly, unseemly Baby Levaster, M.D. Carina, like everyone, is in love with French Edward, the tennis handsome of the title. She has just seen him asleep on Levaster’s couch and joins Levaster in a park outside:

      "He saw Carina turned over onto her belly. She was yanking up grass and eating it.
       'Didn’t you get any supper?'   
      'Seeing him, Baby. Seeing French Edward. He’s so healthy-looking. And he’s almost as old as you. It makes me want to get vitamins and minerals in my stomach.'     
      'But he has no mind outside of me,' said Levaster.
      To which Carina replied: 'His body and his eyes, he doesn’t need anything else.'"

That passage is significant for two reasons. First, because of its commitment to the physical act—to words in service of action, to action as the definitive statement. Second, it shows Hannah was not afraid to revisit and amend. He was careful about it—a paragraph here, a sentence there—and because of that care, that attention, the writing improves.

“Even Greenland” is the Barry Hannah story I recommend when I’m put on the spot. An F-14 catches fire; one pilot ejects, the other dies. As the plane goes down, the pilots compete for the most meaningful last thought. The dead pilot wins because death makes a statement.

“Even Greenland” is barely three pages long. It was published three times: first for the Mississippi Civil Liberties Union, in a 1982 edition, then in Captain Maximus, in 1985, and finally in the anthology Sudden Fiction, in 1986. For each publication, Hannah changed the final sentence; version three is perfect.

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