Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Barry Hannah: Macho Swaggering and Masterful Control

Barry Hannah, most popularly known for his novels, but more appreciated by critics for his short stories, especially his "classic" premier collection Airships (1979), died Monday of a heart attack at his home in Oxford, Mississippi. He was 67. In his honor, I post the following excerpt from a piece I did on Hannah for The Reference Guide to Short Fiction several years ago.

The stereotyped assumption of a writer who made "masculinity" his central focus is that his fiction will be filled with sex, violence, and lots of smoking and drinking. Hannah's fiction does not disappoint that expectation. Indeed, in a number of interviews, he has identified the image of the hard-talking barroom male as a persona for himself. Lamenting that no one has come up with harmless whiskey and cigarettes, Hannah claims that sex makes "death go away," declares he likes violence because things "really meaningful come forth" when you are up against the wall, admits that he knows nothing about women, and contends that his characters drink "not to escape life but to enter it." Hannah crows, "It takes me a hell of a lot of living to write, mainly because I work so close to my own life."

However, Hannah is neither naive nor insensitive about the problems men confront for themselves and create for women when they strike macho poses. In fact, his stories are filled with men trying desperately to find ways to love women, be friends with men, and respect themselves, while at the same time striving to come to terms with their sexual obsessiveness, their territorial possessiveness, and their frequent self disgust. A similar paradox pervades Hannah's writing style. On the one hand, he says that his writing is "pure improvisation," claiming that he does not believe in heavy revision because it takes the "original soul" out of the writing. On the other hand, many reviewers say that the only reason they are willing to forgive Hannah's macho posturing is the beauty of his carefully constructed sentences.

So, which is the real Barry Hannah--the violent, tough-talking sexist with the rambling barroom voice, or the sensitive, tightly controlled stylist exploring the complex difficulties of being male? The answer, of course, is "both." Hannah once said, "If something is not worth getting obsessed about, then it's not worth writing about." The key to understanding the seeming contradictions of Barry Hannah's short fiction is knowing that his primary obsession is story telling, or to use his own favorite synonym telling lies, and that--in spite of accusations that Hannah's characters lie because they are unable to face the truth--for Barry Hannah telling lies and getting at the truth are not contradictions but complex interconnections.

Hannah's signature stories about the relationship between masculinity and telling lies are "Water Liars," the first story in Airships, and its sequel of sorts, "High-Water Railers," the first story in Bats Out of Hell. Both stories take place at Farte Cove, a name suggestive of the gassy storytelling of old men who spend the last years of their lives fishing and spinning yarns about the ones that got away. The narrator, the same age as Jesus when he was crucified, hangs around Farte Cove because he has discovered that his wife has had about the same number of lovers he had before they met, and it has driven him "wild." Although he says back in his mad days, "I dragged the panties off girls I hated and talked badly about them once the sun came up," he can't handle the image of his wife as one of those girls with other men.

The very brief story concludes when a new man, about sixty, tells of hearing ghostly sounds on the river one night while fishing with a friend, only to discover that the sounds come from his daughter having sex with a man on the river bank. The old men ask the age-old question, "Is that the truth?" They are appalled, telling him, "This ain't the place! Tell your kind of story somewhere else." The narrator recognizes that he and the man are kindred, "both crucified by the truth." A narrative treatment of the comic theme made famous by J.M. Synge in the great Irish play, The Playboy of the Western World, "Water Liars" is about the difference between a man's "mighty talk" and a "squabble in your own backyard," that is, it is about the ambiguous double standard we apply to fantasy and reality as well as to self and the other.

In "High-Water Railers," four septuagenarians hang out at Farte Cove and talk about regrets. One misses having the "Big Money," another a significant pet, another having sex with a young girl. Sidney Farte, the owner of the pier, astounds them all when, like a foiled tinman from The Wizard of Oz, he says he wishes he'd had a heart. When the widow of one of the old cronies of Farte Cove, often referred to as Cardinal Wooten because he had something holy about him, arrives and tells them that her husband turned homosexual when he was in his seventies, Lewis, the man who misses having a pet, asks the inevitable question, "Is it true?" Another man crucified by the truth, he begins to cry that he wants a dog. The story ends when the widow and the relieved old men realize, "That's a dream you hardly have to defer.... That can be most painlessly had," and all of them go to Vicksburg to find Lewis a dog.

Critics who have called Hannah's short fiction "brutal," "savage," and "sexist" have reacted only to the posturing surface voice and thus missed the complex tenor of the undertone. In spite of his macho swaggering and his apparent barroom rambling, Barry Hannah has a masterful control of the English language and a keen understanding of how strange and puzzling it is to be merely a man in the world.

Barry Hannah 1942-2010—In pace requiescat

1 comment:

TN-Tanuki said...

Very good article. Thanks for posting. It's a real shame.