Barry Hannah died yesterday.
For those who don’t know Hannah, I suggest immediately getting your hands on a copy of Airships, his collection of short stories that was honored by Esquire Magazine with its Arnold Gingrich Short Fiction Award in 1978 or Geronimo Rex, his first novel, which was nominated for a National Book Award.
Just read the beginning of the short story, Love too Long from Airships:
“My head’s burning off and I got a heart about to burst out of my ribs. All I can do is move from chair to chair with my cigarette. I wear shades. I can’t read a magazine. Some days I take off my binoculars and look out in the air. They laid me off. I can’t find work. My wife’s got a job and she takes flying lessons. When she comes over the house in her airplane, I’m afraid she’ll screw up and crash.”
When Geronimo Rex was published, Jim Harrison, writing in The New York Times, said:
“Hannah is one of those young writers who is brilliantly drunk with words and could at gunpoint write a life story of a telephone pole. He strains for the bon mot and comes up with half a dozen.”
Novelist Richard Ford, a long-time friend of Hannah’s told the Associated Press:
“Barry could somehow make the English sentence generous and unpredictable, yet still make wonderful sense, which for readers is thrilling. You never knew the source of the next word. But he seemed to command the short story form and the novel form and make those forms up newly for himself.”
Hannah, who was 67 and published nine novels and four collections of short stories, died just days before he was to be honored by the 17th Oxford Conference for the Book in Oxford, Missisippi, where he spent much of his life.
He didn’t always have it easy. As the Paris Review put it in the introduction to the 2004 interview it did with him (sadly, only a tiny excerpt of which is online), they wrote of his reputation “as a hard-boiled drinker from Mississippi who liked guns, rode motorcycles, and sometimes raised a little too much hell.”
“I want writing to be a lot,” he said. “I do want higher matters. Matters of salvation, matters of getting love. Matters of spiritual ecstasy in nature or the cities.
“There’s a ghost in every story. Something haunts the story and you’re turning those pages to find out what it is. And it better be good. I’d better be good, or just shut up.”
No worries, there. He was good. Better than good.