I Am a Dragon, America the Beautiful, Like You Will Never Know

Jeffrey Stayton

Consider this. It’s the summer of 2003, your first time attending the Sewanee Writers’ Conference. You have just signed the contract for a two-book deal with Context Books. You look forward to calling yourself a published author at thirty-three, your Jesus year, something that you’ve only dreamed about till now. You feel psyched. More than that, you feel vindicated. You were going to the mountain originally to network with agents and editors. Now you can just relax and enjoy yourself. Sewanee will be like summer camp with ice cold beer.

And so it is. You not only meet writers at this conference, you meet lifelong friends. It is a gathering of the weird tribe, a place where you may take a comfortable seat. But if you could change one thing about the conference, and it is near perfect, it’s this: you wish to God Barry would have stayed home.  

He was not my friend, not even my mentor; Barry Hannah was my nemesis. And I miss him. 

Barry Hannah was not just a writer; he was a writer’s writer, a star quarterback who could do no wrong. And he loved Sewanee, more in some ways than he did Oxford. In fact, Barry was the one who told me about the conference. He encouraged me to go. So why, in the summer of 2003, would I come to regret his presence on the mountain? Because Barry was Barry, and people kept looking to me for explanations. 

At Sewanee, it wasn’t long before the writers in Barry’s workshop sought me out after class to try and divine what he might have meant when he workshopped their stories. These were writers good enough to be accepted as contributors. Yet Barry was trashing their stories without offering much in the way of constructive criticism. A writer would come to me, clearly smarting from the workshop, and ask the same question, “What do you think he meant when he said…?” But I didn’t speak for Barry. I told them that he probably meant exactly what he said (because Barry could be a royal asshole in a workshop was what I probably should have added). One friend came up to me after a workshop and said, “He said my story wasn’t worth the effort it takes to elegantly throw it in the trash.” This was classic Barry. I didn’t think it was cool. I didn’t think it funny either. You pay fifteen hundred dollars to have this writer offer wisdom and maybe some support, and instead he shits in your hat.

And no one confronted him, not even me.

His craft lecture at Sewanee was much worse. Barry didn’t like talking about the craft of fiction. He didn’t offer his own experience with writing to the rest of the writers present. Instead, Barry ran down the clock recounting his religious experience that he had had while going through chemo—except that he wasn’t exactly relating his conversion, more like apologizing for it. Barry stumbled through it so inelegantly that I had to wonder if anyone else knew what he was doing: witnessing his faith to an audience that came to hear him speak about writing fiction. It was the first time I ever heard him tell the story, and it dawned on me that Barry was simply scared of death, so scared that he had turned to Christ. Yet Christ in Barry’s imagination took on a different form. Barry capped off his craft lecture by unfolding a poem he wrote. (His poetry was worse than Updike’s.) It was a poem from the point of view of Christ on the cross. The only thing I remember is how Barry’s Jesus looked down—literally and figuratively—on everybody else and called them, “Cowards! Cowards!”

Once again, I found myself in the position of explaining Barry. There were folks who sincerely came to hear a craft lecture and Barry had wasted their time with visions of Christ on the cross acting the way Barry had imagined him, like a complete asshole. The hipsters who applauded everything Barry did got what they came for, the Barry Show. But everyone else was left baffled and more than a little annoyed. I didn’t get angry. Yet after all the existentialist fiction Barry had his classes read, I realized that his faith was an act of fear. It was bad faith, not faith. Otherwise, wouldn’t Barry have tried to act more Christ-like in his workshops much less in life? But there was no discernable transformation of his character, only a man incapable of encouraging beginning writers and teaching them what he had learned.

I first met Barry at Ole Miss twelve years ago in his creative writing workshop, the second workshop I had signed up to take from him (since he was being treated for lymphoma during the first). Now he was back. By then, I’d heard most of the rumors. Barry had pulled a gun on his class back in Tuscaloosa. That he had shot a hole in his car floorboard to make an ashtray or let rainwater out or something to that effect. That he would go up to sorority girls in his sports jacket and tennis shorts, drunk or high on cocaine, and declare, “Fuck me or die!” Once I heard that when introducing himself to strangers he pretended to be “Col. Hannah” of the Air Force. (That was my favorite Barry rumor.) Women in the department didn’t like him because Barry couldn’t write female characters. Some said he was racist. Others, that he was homophobic. So the man I expected to meet was Yosemite Sam, not Barry Hannah.

Imagine my surprise, then, when I saw Barry in the flesh. His head bald from radiation, looking unnaturally thin and weak. Barry looked like a man approaching seventy, not sixty. He appeared delicate, even haggard, and looked so gentle I thought him too weak to talk.

But then there was that voice! I first recall Barry as a voice. He had the timbre of a Baptist lay preacher. From the first moment he spoke I was transfixed. Perhaps it was the paradox of hearing a commanding voice coming from such a weak body, a powerful resonance coming out of something so close to death. Of all the things he said on that first day of class, what I remember most was his reverence for writing. He said, “Writing is a form of prayer.” And I believed it.

Then Barry was gone, too sick to start the semester let alone finish it. The department wondered if he might die. It didn’t look good.

It wasn’t until I signed up for my third workshop with Barry that I met the man with a full head of hair and his weight back on. He was smoking again, too, though not in the classroom as he was rumored to do. I was thrilled that I would finally get to take a workshop from Barry. I felt lucky that his cancer had gone into remission and that he was healthy enough to teach. After hearing for over a year how great his workshops were, my expectations had soared. I had had good creative writing teachers and bad ones. Now I looked forward to being taught by the writer-in-residence, a master of the short story form. I just knew that it was going to be a transformational experience. I didn’t need a literary hero as much as a mentor, but I’d hoped Barry would be both.

But it wasn’t to be. The first thing I realized in the pit of my stomach during workshop was that Barry didn’t like reading our stories. Any of them. In fact, he seemed to resent having to read them at all. He had us turn in flash fiction-length stories, ones only several pages long, instead of full-length short stories, and then proceeded to turn up his nose at these. There was nothing constructive about his criticism. He was like an eleven-year-old refusing to eat his vegetables, insisting that his dinner be taken away. What’s worse, other students followed his example. He would make a broad statement of contempt for a story, then call on others, those who had taken workshops from him before, and let them do his dirty work. When it was my turn to workshop a story, I held my breath and prepared to stand my round.

“Why do we not write about dreams?” Barry said. Then he called on a minion, one of “Barry’s kids,” from the class who proceeded to answer him as if it were part of a catechism. Then Barry ticked off a few moments in the story, read aloud a sentence or two with disdain; and soon I was no longer writing down what he had to say. I was writing, “Don’t speak, Jeff” over and over again. I was furious. At one point Barry said, “You want to start off like a detective story. With a scarred desk and a busty blond walking through the door.” And as he was saying this, I was writing, “Don’t speak, Jeff.” Oh, I stood my round. Not once did I say, “I didn’t write a detective story, Barry,” or point and shout, “The emperor has no clothes!” Even worse, Barry had written few comments on my story. If they were all I had to go by, I would have thought that it only needed cosmetic changes. Mine wasn’t a great story, it wasn’t even a good story; but I had learned nothing about how to make it better from that workshop. In fact, none of the stories we workshopped left much of an impression on Barry. Yet I stubbornly refused to believe he wasn’t a good teacher, that I was going to have to learn my craft from someone else.    

So I took Forms of Fiction with Barry that spring. This was the worst class I would take in grad school. Barry had wasted so much of our time being unprepared and running down the clock, he was like a teenager who had clearly forgotten his homework but because he was the star athlete he knew he would likely get a pass. He would speak and pull his nervous grin now and then, as if letting us in on the joke. He had us read the existentialist fiction that influenced him—Dostoyevsky, Kafka, Camus—but even this reading no longer appealed to him. Only The Stranger seemed to hold up, and that largely for the reason that it was a short novel. Barry liked to bring in the biographies of the writers we were studying and comment on their pictures, especially if they had pretty wives. It was a total disappointment, and somehow I made a “B” in that class. 

Yet that same spring semester I walked up the stairs in Bondurant Hall to Barry’s corner office, took a seat outside his door and waited. Over the past few years, I would come by now and then during his office hours. Barry would more often than not arrive late, look a little surprised to see me, and let me in for short conversation before his next class started. But this time I had news. Big news.

“Come in, Jeff,” he said. I sat down and felt comfortable in Barry Hannah’s office for what seemed like the first time. His office always had an unlived-in quality—a Miles Davis Kind of Blue poster, a dozen books, a computer he never used—as though Barry were just moving his stuff in, or almost done moving it out.

Normally, there would have been some preamble before I asked him the questions about writing that were on my mind. But today, I went straight to my news.

“Context Books wants to publish my novel,” I said, a little astounded.

This raised his eyebrows over his glasses. He congratulated me. Barry told me I needed to get an agent. I had hoped he might recommend his, or at least could point me in the right direction. I didn’t know whether to shop my novel around or publish with Context. I needed help, and Barry was the writer with the most experience I knew. But this was not to be. I was on my own.

And I would remain on my own when the book deal went south. I found out shortly after attending Sewanee that Context Books had gone bankrupt. It was like having to tell everyone the wedding was off. By then, I was no longer looking to Barry for help, though he never offered it. From time to time, after Barry had started drinking again, he would come up to tell me whenever I saw him what a raw deal I got and what a tragic shame it was. And I would refrain from asking him to contact his publisher and vouch for me. I didn’t want Barry to offer his condolences. I had once wanted him to open what doors he could for me. I don’t know what else I could have done to prove my worth.

Where did this animosity come from and why did I let it get into my blood stream? Barry might have been a disappointing teacher, but I wanted to publicly denounce him as such. What I didn’t know then (and wouldn’t know for some time to come) was that Barry Hannah reminded me of certain authority figures from my past that had also abused their authority and left me feeling bitter disappointment and without a voice.

Barry and I not only had writing in common, we both did tours of duty in Alcoholics Anonymous. I don’t know why Barry left, since he never shared his reasons with me. But I left after five years once it was clear that I would never find my voice as a writer so long as I recited A.A.’s clichés and kowtowed to men who happened to have more sobriety than me. Barry reminded me of the “old timers.” Men with double-digit sobriety whose words were respected despite what they said. These were the ones who told newcomers: “Take the cotton out of your ears and stick it in your mouth.” They were the ones who “ripped you a new asshole” every time you stepped out of line. These weren’t the helpful sponsors you see on TV though; these were the “dry drunks,” men with time sober and little else. They would speak in meetings and have a coterie of loyal followers echo their words, just like Barry. These emperors had no clothes, and no one listened when I said so. Now I had somehow let Barry Hannah become another old timer and dry drunk in my life.

Worst of all, I had made a father figure of the man; and like my own dad, Barry let me down. Like Barry, my father could tell marvelous stories. And like Barry, my father had a drinking problem. So I had gone into A.A. looking for my father, and I had gone into creative writing workshops looking for a sponsor.

Whenever I would run into other writers at conferences and we got on the subject of Oxford, they all asked the same thing, “How’s Barry doing?” Writers are notorious gossips, so I chose my words carefully. “He’s good,” I would say. “Still healthy.” But I knew what they really wanted was the dirt. You could tell that they had heard Barry was drinking again. And they wanted to know how bad he had relapsed into his old self. I resented having to protect Barry’s reputation. That wasn’t my job. But the alternative would have been to portray him as just another drunk. That I was not prepared to do.  

Then March 1, 2010, something unexpected happened. Barry died of a heart attack the week the Oxford Conference for the Book honored him, and I felt sudden jubilation. “He’s gone,” I thought. It hit me like spring fever. The weather in Oxford was lyrically beautiful that week. Former grad students from all over the South had returned to Oxford to honor Barry, now to observe his passing. But I was alive! I drove around Oxford practically giddy. “He was in my way,” I thought. Now Barry was gone. He was in my way, and now he’s gone. And I was glad, no—jubilant. I didn’t wish him ill any longer. I didn’t imagine him rotting in the ground or roasting in hell. Quite the opposite. Now I was free to do the one thing I couldn’t do while he was alive—show Barry respect.

I wasn’t going to attend his funeral service. Nor was I going to attend the mass reading of his work at Proud Larry’s. That was for those who loved him. I was going to do it my own way. The entire conference was dedicated to remembering Barry. But at its open mic, I dedicated a reading from my novel to him, and then proceeded to dazzle the crowd like I was Barry’s heir apparent. Panelists at the conference shared their remembrances of Barry with the audience. But I went so far as contacting the Oxford Eagle and gave an interview that portrayed Barry Hannah in the most favorable light. And did so without lying. When Esquire published an unflattering account of Barry, I sent them a letter defending him. Esquire especially owed Barry respect. The entire town of Oxford might have grieved the passing of a local legend in Fulton chapel on the Ole Miss campus. But by then I was already in Memphis with my girlfriend, kicking inside with life.

I had not lost a friend. I had lost a foe. And there is a peculiar grief in a foe’s passing.

Here is how I like to remember Barry. On the last day of the Sewanee Conference, everyone had gathered together to hear Richard Bausch read. Bausch’s young daughters had decorated their dad with all sorts of trinkets and baubles. He looked hilarious. Just an hour before his reading I had told Dick about Russian holy fools, Fools for Christ. And to my delight, Dick told the entire audience of writers, “We are all beautiful fools.”

Minutes into his reading the fire alarm went off.

If it had happened to any other writer, it’s hard to say what might have happened next. But Dick had once done stand-up comedy. So as the fire alarm blasted its horn ONE, TWO, THREE times, again and again, Dick proceeded to entertain his audience while others checked to see if there was indeed a fire in the building. Dick affected a horrendous British accent and spoke the lyrics to “She Loves You” over the fire alarm. The alarm was terrible, but Dick was funny. Everyone stayed. I imagine if there really was a fire a few of us would have gladly perished. But there was no fire. Eventually, someone shut the alarm off and the whole audience erupted in applause. Then Dick Bausch gave a terrific reading of one of his short stories.

When Barry appeared in the room, sheepishly, everyone by then knew he had accidently set off the fire alarm after lighting a cigarette in the men’s room. I think about how true Dick’s statement was, that we are all beautiful fools. And Barry Hannah, despite your best efforts, you were a beautiful fool just like the rest of us.

Sabers, gentlemen, sabers!

Jeffrey Stayton