WHEN THE GREAT WRITER Barry Hannah passed away back in 2010, he left behind a body of work that remains amongst the most vivacious and electric fiction America has ever produced. The short story collections Airships and Bats Out of Hell, along with the novels Geronimo Rex and Ray, contain some of the wildest, most original language of the last half-century. Hannah was a writer who Truman Capote once famously labeled “the maddest writer in the U.S.A.,” which — in the heyday of gonzo, new journalism, and densely layered metafiction — was saying something. Hannah was also a teacher, working everywhere from Iowa to Oxford, Mississippi, and almost every English department lying along the latitudes in between.
Louis Bourgeois, executive director of VOX Press, has compiled a collection of essays remembering all this about Hannah, written by those who knew him, worked with him, and studied under him. Reading these, it’s clear that, though Hannah lived hard for a long time, he still managed to give a large number of students a number of great lessons that have stayed with them as they have evolved. He also gave one a gun.
A Short Ride: Remembering Barry Hannah is a thoughtful, comprehensive, and almost pointillistic remembrance of a man who comes across as remarkably memorable, funny, and just as sharp as his work was. Hannah was the sort of character who always left you hungry, so we tracked down Bourgeois in Mississippi to find out more.
Toby Barlow: How did you first encounter Barry Hannah and what was your first impression?
Louis Bourgeois: My first encounter was in the early ’90s when I was an undergraduate at LSU. I was taking a fiction workshop with the Seattle writer Evan Burton. He assigned David Madden’s Revising Fiction for the class. Madden quoted a passage from Barry Hannah’s first novel, Geronimo Rex:
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.
This passage stuck in my head for years. In fact, it still does. I moved to Oxford after graduating, namely to be around the ghost of Faulkner. At that point, I hadn’t read any of Hannah’s books for some reason. During my first summer in Oxford, all I heard about was Barry Hannah and Larry Brown. The first book I read by Hannah was his long fiction collection, Bats Out of Hell. Although I was impressed by it, I still considered it a few notches below the other metafictional writers I worshipped at the time, namely Donald Barthelme, John Barth, and John Hawkes. By the end of the summer, I decided to study under Hannah and find out for myself what all the buzz was about. Actually, during this time, the late ’90s in Oxford, Larry was all the rage and...read more