Language and Humor: Barry Hannah is a Dangerous Teacher

a personal essay
Brett Puryear

Barry Hannah has been my most deliciously dangerous fiction teacher. And no, I wasn’t there at Ole Miss while he was head of the MFA program. My brother was, but he wasn’t a writing student. An avid reader, yes, and like any self-respecting, intelligent student at Ole Miss, he’d had a brief love affair with Hannah’s fiction. That’s how I learned about Barry Hannah. Otherwise I never would have read him; I never would have been taught by him. A couple years into my writing I picked up Airships and was taught a dangerous lesson: with humor, a writer can get away with a lot.

Barry Hannah got away with literary murder; malpractice; botched plastic surgery; syntactical atrocities…delicious syntactical atrocities. He could turn a consistent sense of narrative tense on and off like a light switch within a single paragraph (Stolen! From Ray… “I have a wife who turns her beauty on and off like a light switch,” says Ray, in a brief personal introduction). Barry Hannah is as infectious a writer as can be. It is extremely difficult not to slip one of his little gem-like sentences into your own writing. Even some of his most simple, doesn’t-exactly-jump-right-off-the-page sentences glitter mysteriously. They ring in your mind like a great hook in a song.

But let me rephrase my previous statement (with humor, a writer can get away with a lot); no, with humor, Barry Hannah got away with a lot.

A young writer can’t pick up Airships or Ray and think, ok, I should try and use the words nigger and titties in my fiction. That will make my writing funnier, and my characters feel more realistic, gritty. No, I don’t think we can do that today. Today’s South is a little bit different from Barry Hannah’s South. My dad would have punched me in the mouth if I’d ever used the N-word (or rather, in today’s South, he would’ve thrown me in time-out). You get the feeling that Hannah knew these characters. A lot of them were other versions of him. And it takes a special writer to make you feel compassionate about severely damaged, irreverent, chauvinistic, and perhaps racist characters. For instance, the narrator of “Love too Long” is a very pathetic case. But how funny and how sad it is when he, during an introduction on how generally pathetic he is, explains how he’d “bought a croquet set on credit at Penney’s. First day I got so tired of it I knocked the balls off in the weeds and they’re out there rotting, mildew all over them, I bet, but I don’t want to see.” And then you think of how sad, how pathetic that character really is. But you cannot help but laugh. I read that phrase out loud to my girlfriend. We both lay in bed and laughed till we cried even though she doesn’t read Hannah (because, yes, perhaps he can be a little hard for women to take, at least on the surface of his writing; beneath the surface is a different story). You do that often while reading Hannah’s fiction; laughing and crying.

These isolated, one or two-sentence paragraphs? You can thank Hannah for that. He affects my writing on even the most cosmetic, superficial levels. But I am thankful for that, too.

Like many fans of Hannah’s work, I was introduced to him through Airships. Upon merely finishing the first two stories in that collection, “Water Liars” and “Love too Long, ”I knew that I’d stumbled upon a kind of fiction I didn’t know existed. How do these sentences work that are so far from what I’d been taught in my fiction workshops? And this humor and rhythm, it feels like campfire talk; your crazy Uncle Barry swilling beer and yammering away, flipping burgers on the grill in a backyard barbeque. How the hell, with a serious, writerly conscience, do you come up with a sentence as organic and hilarious and infectious as “This poor dignified man has had to explain his nobility to the semiliterate of half of America before he could even start a decent conversation with them”? Now, say that out loud to yourself. Now try a little reedy Southern drawl. Now try your hand at romance, Barry Hannah style: “When you get down to it, there isn’t much to do. It’s just arms and legs. It’s not worth a damn.” And speaking of campfire talk––Barry Hannah is the only author I’ve read out loud with a friend drinking beer around a campfire. My friend and I read “Ride, Fly, Penetrate, Loiter” around a fire, drinking beer, laughing, admiring these sentences. But the humor is the most powerful thing, and Hannah played it highbrow and lowbrow. A lot of it was lowbrow, but he had the genius to make it literary.

And Hannah could break down that literary barrier. The barrier that keeps some of the working class, frat-boys, business professionals, etcetera, from reading literature. Within his fiction, he did break the barrier. Barry Hannah’s fiction has the potential to be the literary equivalent of a Wilco concert; it attracts a wide variety of people; frat boys and intellectuals alike; hipsters, geeks, preps, bikers… whoever.

But when I’m sitting and reading Hannah I feel like I’m holding a kind of secret in my hands. Is this one of the reasons I love his fiction? Is it the secret society, you’ve-never-heard-of-this-band-before feel? Not really. As with all great writers, it has to be right there in the text. It’s all about the language. Language and humor­­­­––these are the two simple words which came to mind when I’d first started thinking about writing what I am writing now––language and humor.

And Barry Hannah’s language is as fluid and organic as music. I’ve heard mention of his prose being compared to jazz. A lot of Hannah’s fiction was concerned with music: “Testimony of Pilot,” which is one of the most structurally sound and masterful of any short story I’ve ever read, and, of course, Geronimo Rex deal with brass and woodwinds with such relish and affection. Hannah had told an interviewer for The Paris Review that music is the best of all art forms. The final statement in Geronimo Rex denounces literature in favor of music: “Good, good heavens. We’re in the wrong field. Music!”

But Hannah did not choose the wrong field; he chose both, in a way. Hannah’s fiction is the closest thing to music I’ve read. Reading Ray is like listening to Bitches Brew if it were sped up and put into language on a redneck landscape, doing it all with language.

Hannah did it all, up until his death. His powers did not dwindle. High Lonesome contains stories that have the scope of a novel. “Get Some Young” is like the distillation of a more raucous, more comedic Faulkner or McCarthy. The uncharacteristically subdued and elegant little childhood tale “A Creature at The Bay St. Louis” is a rapturous, in some ways Joycean, depiction of youth. Hannah did so much with so little, utilizing a limited Southern landscape such as Faulkner did with Yoknapatawpha County, with humor. Yet, Hannah was not just funny, he was a master storyteller. For all his seeming disregard for form, syntax, and narrative tense, Hannah broke the rules because he could. He’d said in interviews he liked to write with his gut, but there must have been something mechanical in the very back of his mind, charging his visceral, intuitive writing with a nameless, phantom expertise.

I don’t mean to throw garlands and roses. I’m getting passionate here because, as I’ve said, I can read Hannah around the campfire. I can use Hannah the way I use music. If my day stinks, I open up one of his books, and everything around me fades away, all because of language and humor, Hannah’s musical tools. I wish I’d discovered him before his death. But I’m blessed to have been taught by Hannah through his fiction, dangerous a teacher as he is. But I like danger. I hope his influence continues to spread like a delightful rash. Youngsters, students, professors, geeks, hipsters, frat-boys, take heed: Humor! Music! Sabers up, Language!

Brett Puryear
Brett Puryear

Brett Puryear is a self-proclaimed late bloomer, more interested in playing his Fender guitar, riding around in cars and shooting fireworks at undeserving entities in Southeast Tennessee than reading so much as a traffic sign until he discovered a deep love, a need, for literature during his undergraduate career, whereupon he began his journey as a voracious reader and writer. Currently he bartends in downtown Chattanooga, fly fishes the Hiwassee River, and searches for meaning amidst the wild, convoluted, electric world. Above all, Brett spends his time searching for stories.