In 1978, I worked in a bookstore at Lenox Square in Atlanta called Brentano’s. One afternoon I found one of my coworkers, the notorious Jeff Calder of the Swimming Pool Qs, howling over a book he was supposed to be shelving. “Listen to this,” he said, and read out loud:
“My head’s burning off and I got a heart about to bust out of my ribs.”
I pushed the cover up so I could read the author’s name. “Barry Hannah,” I said. “Who’s that?”
He read some more lines. Goddamn, we said together, wheezing with laughter, ducking down behind the book shelf when our boss walked by. Goddamn.
I bought my own copy. I have it still—the funniest, most bodacious collection of stories I have ever read. It was high holiness coming out of Mississippi.
Hannah was born there, in Meridian, and grew up in Clinton. It barely matters where he went to school or where he taught (bio here), because he is a legend. It’s enough to say he became godlike and then he fell; but first, he soared.
Beginning with his debut short-story collection, Airships, Hannah launched a world of unrepentant characters who carried on with such a uniquely sinful flair that to read about them required you to nearly stop breathing.
I did not think rereading his work would have much of an effect on me, having followed him from that first book to High Lonesome (1996), but as his raunchy-ornate prose sucked me back through stories I hadn’t read in over 30 years, my jaw kept dropping all over again.
I reviewed Long, Last, Happy for this coming Sunday’s AJC:
“Lying is one thing,” Barry Hannah always said. “Telling the truth, though, will crucify you.” Whether it helped or hurt him, he never stopped doing both.
His characters followed suit. Their yearning was explosive: “My head’s burning off and I got a heart about to bust out of my ribs.” Jealousy wracked them: “You could not believe how handsome and delicate my wife is naked. I was driven wild by the bodies that had trespassed her twelve and thirteen years ago.”
They hated—“I was praying for an artery to snap in his face and vowed direct revenge if it didn’t. The man must be stomped and dragged off in a net”—and lied with abandon: “…a chronic prevaricator whose lies were so gaudy and wrapped around that they might have been a medieval tapestry of what almost or never happened.”
They had quit drinking, but longed to start again: “He missed making the nut of drink every day. He missed the raddled adventures. There was always the focus: securing the next high, defending the hoard of liquor money, but with chivalry; getting through the day without murder…”
They knew great joy, but emotional distress was their default button: “All we are is obsession and pain. That is all humans are.”
A native of Mississippi, Hannah won the Williams Faulkner Prize for his first novel, Geronimo Rex (1972), also nominated for the National Book Award. But it was his debut short-story collection, Airships (1978), that marked a super nova in the literary sky: a bad boy who refused to follow any rules, yet wrote like an angel.
A twisted, demented, dark angel, but an angel nonetheless….
Read the rest here.
Hannah’s rules for writing fiction were pretty simple:
When you tell a story think more in terms of yarn, tale, even whopper. Then tell it subtly. DON’T think of nuance or “interior decoration.”
Read more rules, courtesy of Michael Bible, on HTMLGiant.