A master from Mississippi

By Michael Dirda
Thursday, December 23, 2010; C06

Boy, did I not see this coming. While I knew that Barry Hannah, who died this year at the age of 67, was a revered Southern writer, a teacher at the University of Mississippi and a mentor to the novelists Donna Tartt and Larry Brown (among others), I had somehow never actually read any of his work. Yet his first collection of stories, "Airships," has long been regarded as a modern classic, and "Captain Maximus," "Bats Out of Hell" and "High Lonesome" hardly less so. I did have the impression that the stories themselves were pretty much about good old boys who liked their liquor, women, guns and motorcycles, and probably tended to abuse the first two. But that's about all. Hannah himself, I figured, probably hadn't been much different in his youth.

Then I heard that he'd gotten sick with cancer, seen Jesus in a dream and recovered, and that his subsequent work grew a bit softer, less frenetic. In Oxford, Miss., however, he remained a fixture, a regular visitor at the famous Square Books, a guy people liked and were glad to have carrying on the local traditions of Faulkner and Welty.

But I knew all this secondhand, never having read a word by the man himself. Which is why I was eager to review "Long, Last, Happy." Before going any further, let me say straight out that I was a fool to have waited so long to discover Hannah.

Agatha Christie mysteries we read for their plots, Sherlock Holmes stories we return to for their gaslight and hansom-cab coziness, but the very best writers we love for the sound of their sentences, the shiver of pleasure delivered by unexpected words and astonishing turns of phrase, by the way their language makes us feel glad to be alive. You don't pick up James Joyce's "Ulysses" because you want to learn about the events in Dublin on June 16, 1904; you don't read Hunter S. Thompson because you want to find out about the nightlife in Las Vegas. What Joyce and Thompson offer is simply the glorious experience of the English language knocking your socks off.

Barry Hannah belongs in this noble company. And then some. As a boy, Hannah was drawn to Dylan Thomas's surreal poetry; as a young man, he wrote a thesis on William Blake's apocalyptic visions. These are his forebears as much as the masters of the American grotesque: Edgar Allan Poe ("Hop-Frog"), Nathanael West ("Miss Lonelyhearts"), William Faulkner (almost anything) and Flannery O'Connor ("A Good Man Is Hard to Find"). Yet like all these writers, Hannah produced work full of macabre humor and wistfulness and wild regret. " 'Intercourse,' said an old-timer, breathing heavy. He sat up on the rail. It was a word of high danger to his old mind. He said it with a long disgust, glad, I guess, he was not involved." That's from "Water Liars," which starts with a lovely sentence (reminiscent of one from the start of "Moby-Dick"):

"When I am run down and flocked around by the world, I go down to Farte Cove off the Yazoo River and take my beer to the end of the pier where the old liars are still snapping and wheezing at one another."

While that's certainly beautiful, it's also basically realistic. Not so this description of a man's passion for his wife: "I want to sleep in her uterus with my foot hanging out" ("Love Too Long").

Sometimes Hannah can be Woody Allen funny: "Roger had a fascinated aversion to this Mintner and believed that he should be hauled away and made to eat with accountants" ("Getting Ready"). At other times, the surreal grows into absurdist drama. A Confederate soldier unhorses a Yankee:

" 'Say wise things to me or die, patriot,' I said.

" 'But but but but but but,' he said.

" 'Shhh!' I said. 'Let nobody else hear. Only me. Tell the most exquisite truths you know' " ("Dragged Fighting from His Tomb").

In "Knowing He Was Not My Kind Yet I Followed," a gay Confederate soldier pines for Gen. Jeb Stuart. Still another Civil War tale, "Behold the Husband in His Perfect Agony," might have been written by Ambrose Bierce at his most bitter and pitiless, as a Yankee spy finds himself unexpectedly betrayed.

While Hannah's sentences are never anything but pure pleasure, his stories often finish enigmatically, as in the sudden violence at the end of "Coming Close to Donna." But then this is a story that opens with two rivals fighting to the death over Donna while she begs for sex from her gay friend Vince, who simply likes "to wear smart clothes and walk up and down Sunset Strip."

In one of Hannah's longest pieces, "Two Things, Dimly, Were Going at Each Other," a writer closely modeled on William Burroughs discovers that a distinguished doctor suffers from "Grofft." In an attempt at sexual reinvigoration, the 89-year-old surgeon has had a transfusion of what turns out to be the tainted blood of a South American Indian. Symptoms of Grofft include "lupine facial features and doglike barking and whining; quadriped posture; hebephrenia; extremely nervous devotion to a search, general agitation, constant disappointment, lethargy, then renewal." During a severe attack of the virus, the doctor suddenly barrels through New York City on all fours and finally buries his head in the dug-up grave of his first wife.

The surreal is often close to the spooky, and every Southern writer worth his moonshine knows at least one or two tales of "your witches and your haints." In "Evening of the Yarp: A Report by Roonswent Dover," a backwoods boy unsuspectingly gives a lift to a vampiric creature called the Yarp. Now, a Yarp generally "denominates in black garments" but will suddenly "lift his coat and you can see all his digestion, everything he's eaten all chewed and gravyed-up in them tubes and holds and glands, and it makes you sicker. Thered be a baby's foot or one woman saw his stomach and there were a human brain." The Yarp is definitely what poor Dover calls one of "your active supernaturals," like the hag who can stare at people "till theyr hearts break."

While the four new stories in "Happy, Long, Last" don't quite pack the power of the earlier ones, they're still more than worth reading. In "Sick Soldier at Your Door," God is imagined as a lanky fellow - "Old Dad" - with "iron gray hair parted and combed straight back" who is always "busting his ribs with glee over the misreadings of rabbis, monks, and the television preachers from the Academy for Significant Hair."

Gentle Reader, learn from my own awful example. Put aside that meretricious bestseller and go immerse yourself in the heartbreakingly funny, word-drunk world of Barry Hannah.

Dirda reviews books every Thursday for The Post.


New and Selected Stories

By Barry Hannah

Grove. 456 pp. $27.50

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