With his short stories and novels, Mississippi’s Barry Hannah — who passed away Monday of a heart attack at age 67 — captured the disorienting jerks and reverberating thuds and bewildering empties of the “contemporary” South better than just about any author of the past 40 years.
For young readers growing up in the region, his wittily twisted yet finely crafted prose often fucked with our heads in a way that felt entirely accurate to how life constantly did the same. John Updike cheaply gibed that the protagonist of coming-of-age novel Geronimo Rex was a new “whining” Holden Caulfield, but Hannah set in motion a more existentially ornery series of events.
Though many of his books are classics, and High Lonesome, a collection of short stories, was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize, my favorite to reread and quote was the thin, oddball comic riot Ray, in which a professor memorably responds to a student’s poem (delicately titled “Certain Feelings”) by remarking: “They always say Southerners can write. So I slugged this skinny lad. I laid him down the steps … his family is saying they’ll sue.”
I once had the privilege of sharing a meal with Mr. Hannah and a handful of others in Austin, Texas, during a South by Southwest festival, and though he was a short, round, ruddy, somewhat resigned presence amongst our blabbering bunch, he had a wry way of staking out his turf. He’d just written a lovely piece for Spin about Johnny Cash (see the article from the July 1994 issue below), in advance of the American Recordings revival, and I was nagging him for further what-was-he-really-like? insight, anecdotes from an encounter between two quintessential take-no-shit artists.
Cracking only a hint of a smile, Hannah sat back, tugged on his suit jacket sleeve, and said: “Well, you know, Cash doesn’t take any shit. But he’s also kinda full of shit. See, Cash is Cash. He’s an intellectual.”
Barry Hannah will be missed.