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Barry Hannah: A Short Ride with the “2nd King” of Mississippi Literature

Will Barry Hannah’s death prompt the sort of popularity that largely eluded him in life–as it does for so many writers?

Louis Bourgeois has done his part, assembling over 30 essays about the “maddest writer in the U.S.A.” as he was famously dubbed by Truman Capote. If you’re late to the party, don’t worry. Most are. Either way, A Short Ride: Remembering Barry Hannah is a wild ride and serious addition to a Hannah collection.

Buried now in Oxford Cemetery, right down the hill from Faulkner, Hannah is considered heir to the bitter humor of Mark Twain, the Roman Catholic gothic of Flannery O’Connor and the South’s outsize tradition of tall tales. All of that combined with what has been called an “eccentric Cuisinart of hick postmodernism, creating an American squawk and squall as singular as Faulkner’s or Jerry Lee Lewis’s.”

His novels and shorts stories are on par, writes John Oliver Hodges, “with works by Beckett, Hemingway, and Camus, writers he adored, and in Hannah’s last work can be found all the startling insights, situations, language, and narrative complexities that our greatest writers are known for.”

His strongest works are discussed in Hanging Chad Top 5 and Why, but his first publication was a story that was placed in a national anthology of the best college writing when he was a student at the University of Arkansas.

“‘Mother Rooney Unscrolls the Hurt,’ which was a piece of my then-forthcoming book, Geronimo Rex. I was about twenty-three. It really lit up for me, I thought. I don’t really care what folks think of it now, but ‘Mother Rooney’ was a springboard to the rest of my creative life.”

That first novel, the grotesque bildungsroman, Geronimo Rex (1972), was nominated for the National Book Award. The short novel Ray (1980) was a critical success and a minor breakthrough for Hannah, and it is considered one of his best known novels.

After the grotesque Western pastiche Never Die (1991), Hannah stuck to the short story form for the rest of the decade, first with the immense Bats Out of Hell (1993), which featured twenty-three stories over close to four hundred pages, making it Hannah’s longest book, and then with High Lonesome (1996), which was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize. After a near-fatal bout with non-Hodgkin lymphoma, Hannah returned in 2001 with Yonder Stands Your Orphan (the title is taken from Bob Dylan’s song “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue”), his longest novel since Geronimo Rex. In this novel, Hannah returned to a small community north of Vicksburg and to some of the characters featured in stories from Airships and Bats Out of Hell.

Louis Bourgeois says it was a passage from Geronimo Rex that he read as an undergraduate at LSU that stuck with him for years, and led him, over time, deeper into Hannah’s writing.

“I was standing beside a skyblue Cadillac. You pretentious whale, you Cadillac, I thought.

I jumped up on the hood of it. I did a shuffle on the hood. I felt my boots sinking into the metal. ‘Ah!’ I pounced up and down, weighted by the books. It amazed me that I was taking such effect on the body. I leaped on the roof and hurled myself up and pierced it with my heels coming down […] again, again. I flung outward after the last blow and landed on the sidewalk, congratulating myself like an artist of the trampoline.”

For more on the interview with Louis Bourgeois and his decision to collect the essays for A Short Ride, and how Hannah influenced him at least to the extent that he tries to write with “brutal honesty,” go here.

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