DECEMBER 26, 2011
“ARE YOU ABOVE THE GREED and ambition of the characters in these stories?” 3 pm, Thursday afternoon. There are five of us in Barry’s Form, Craft & Influence class, and we are reading noir, which might be one of Barry’s favorite words to say — he really lets it open up at the end. Campus is almost empty at this hour, and Barry decides he wants to smoke. Hell, let’s all smoke. He breaks out his copy of The Big Sleep, and it falls open in his hands, so well read. He delivers a few introductory comments from a scribble of notes, then pauses, pulls faces, sifting through his own puzzlement and reactions to produce the first question.
Are you above the greed and ambition of the characters in these stories? We all look at each other, tapping cigarettes. I’m not taking this one, each of us seems to be saying. I wrote this question down in my notebook, probably to avoid being called on, but it is representative of Barry’s discussion starters — a lovely phrase by itself, but the answer is inevitably going to be an awkward mess. Discussions under Barry weren’t graceful. As a discussion leader, he didn’t have sheen and gloss. The process of dissecting these books was uncomfortable, lurching, and occasionally beautiful. We kept our pens poised, not for insights into the text, but to catch the fragmented poetry of Barry’s words. It is so easy to say things that aren’t true about people who are gone, but others will testify that Barry was as original in conversation as he is on the page. My notebooks are scarred with phrases that mean nothing out of context: went into Alzheimers and killed himself…bottle problem…they learn more, the silent ones…that money is almost like monopoly — it sounds beautiful.
His gift for language had everything to do with his character. Barry had his vanities — he liked to look fine with a cigarette in his mouth — but he was a humble man. A result of his faith? Of his struggles with alcohol? Those guesses are better made by people who knew him longer. But both on and off the page, you didn’t feel Barry making choices about the way he wrote or lived — he could do no other way.
I looked out my window one morning to see a motorcycle capsized on my lawn, Barry strolling up to my door, his chest high, pages in his hand. It was a story I’d written for class, and he was dropping by to tell me how much he liked it. After that, he would stop in on occasion. I started keeping Gatorades, a favorite beverage of his, in my fridge. We’d sit on the porch and smoke cigarettes and talk about music or whatever was on his mind. His conversation, like his writing, was unusual, honest and bound to its own currents. One moment we’d be sharing a laugh, the next I would be sitting there, thinking What in the hell is he talking about? But that may have less to do with Barry as a conversationalist and more to do with our relationship, which was a teacher-student relationship, after all, and thus uncertain when let out into the open pastures of friendship. I loved Barry most as a teacher.
Barry had no pretensions about being a genius. He was interested in entertaining, like his pal John Grisham. First day of noir class, he announced that our “learning goal” was “to set these ‘hard-boiled’ noir books next to your heart: their style, their content, their popular success.” He wanted us to reach for the wide audience, not the lofty awards. And in this way, he responded to authenticity, urgency, action, desire. “Pace, plot and action along with gripping subject matter are what’s lacking in much young work,” he wrote in our class syllabus. “Yet there are some howlers among the pros as delectable as the successes and just as fine a tool of learning.” More than any other teacher I have encountered, in and out of the classroom, Barry taught me to write from my gut. That might not be the best advice to every aspiring writer, but sometimes I think I went to Mississippi just to learn that, from him.
His final years were a gift to us, a testament to his unfailing generosity. He could’ve kept to his bed, but he showed up and shared with us his decline. It was painful to see, challenging and sad for us all, and then, at times, glorious. Instead of just reading Waiting for Godot, he had us put on the play, in an auditorium, for ourselves; he provided the fedoras. On a good day, Barry would sit on the balcony of the bar, or the bookstore, and invite company. One sunny afternoon, he surprised us out at Jane Rule Burdine’s cotton farm in Taylor, ten miles outside town. His spirits were up. In the ancient one-room schoolhouse on Jane Rule’s land, we drank and played music, Barry on bass, till the early hours. He had us learn Bob Dylan’s “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door”; we played it over and over. In the morning, he was gone; someone heard him starting up his bike just before dawn. He loved to ride. Whenever he was feeling good, he’d be on his bike, just cruising. My head still turns when I’m in Oxford and I see a motorcycle go by. I think, “There’s Barry.” And I believe, for a moment, that it is.
A version of this essay appears in A Short Ride: Remembering Barry Hannah, from Vox Press.