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REMEMBERING BARRY HANNAH (19422010)


What I admire most about his writing is the brevity of it. It’s poetry, but not quite. Stories read like postcards your friends hold dear. I wish I could write postcards like that—could approximate their pithiness, their humor. Tell a girl that I miss her with a single line.

Most of us can’t, but Barry Hannah could. That was his art. He never used space he didn’t need. He understood the heart of the matter. The Tennis Handsome ends with Murphy, the protagonist’s daughter, meeting a boy named Barry in New Orleans. Barry plays tennis, as did Hannah:

     “Mostly, he lost. But Murphy never minded going along to see him play. For one thing, it got her out in the fresh air. And for another thing, there was always that weird blazing instant when he threw the ball up, and it stuck itself up there, holding itself aloft for him to catch it with his serve.
     “It made her heart call out to see it. It didn’t matter that he was her man. It wasn’t any taking sides or that brand of thing. It was something else, and it made, just for the instant, her heart sing.”

In a 2008 interview with Wells Tower for Garden & Gun magazine, Hannah confessed, “I was brokenhearted to hear people call me difficult. I always intended to be light and open, but I suppose I misjudged the American audience.” But Barry Hannah was much loved, and by many. He helped students publish, lent his name to other writers’ dust jackets generously, and was kind to admirers. He taught, and took pride in it. Teaching, of course, was a way to make money, and he was gracious about that, too. His writing did not make him rich, but he was aware, in his lifetime, of how much it mattered to people like me.

I spent an evening with Barry Hannah once, in Texas, when he taught for a semester in the city of San Marcos. I was home in San Antonio for Christmas. Because I was a fan and because he was famous but not a celebrity—because I’d met him in the bookstore and he’d been friendly—I took advantage a second time and asked him for an interview. He said yes. We ate Tex-Mex for dinner and he drove me through his neighborhood, pointing out places along the way. There was an oak tree he liked to teach beneath on days with good weather. Here was a pool hall; we stopped and played, and he beat me four games straight. As we waited for a train to pass at a railroad crossing, he put his Jeep in park and commented on the color of the sky. I asked very little that was substantive, and so wasted his time twice over. But he did not say so.

In San Marcos, Hannah told me that he watched horror films at the drive-in as a kid. He confirmed it to The Paris Review. “I buy the two-dollar ones that are just so tasteless,” he said, “because I learn more from those than from the finished, wonderful movies.” A friend of mine, looking at new releases, saw him at Wal-Mart in Oxford one night, dressed in sweat pants and a leather jacket, browsing through a bin of horror DVDs.

In a 1993 interview with Don Swaim, available online, Hannah remembered the “blithe and liberated youth” that anyone else would call “childhood.” “We made our own fun more,” he said, running “more” into the back of “fun.” He pronounced “literature” as if it ended with “tour.” “Father,” like all Southern fathers, was “daddy.” I liked his voice, the product of a Clinton, Mississippi upbringing. But he was a great writer, is enough—a French Edward on the serve.

 

 

 

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