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A Screaming Comet

From: American Book Review
Volume 34, Number 3, March/April 2013
p. 14 | 10.1353/abr.2013.0053

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

A Short Ride: Remembering Barry Hannah is a collection of various short pieces of mostly prose, some poetry—remembrances of the author and late director of the Master of Fine Arts program at the University of Mississippi, by his former students, colleagues, and other friends. There are two brief pieces by Hannah and an interview with him by Editor Louis Bourgeois. The whole is liberally accentuated with photographs of Barry and friends, Barry and one of his dogs, and other relevant parts of his world: a writing workshop syllabus, his motorcycle, his and his wife Susan’s tombstones. (I tried writing this review using the professional last-name reference but gave up; it doesn’t quite work with this very personal collection of memories.)

The book is an attractive paperback with cover art by Barry’s longtime friend, artist Glenray Tutor, who had also created covers for Bats Out of Hell (1993), High Lonesome (1996), and the Grove press paperbacks, all featuring the iconic “Screaming Rebel Rocket” firecrackers. Following each piece is a brief bio of the contributor, and following the whole is a list of contributing photographers, with bios. There is no Index. The editing is good but not perfect; for example, “The Spy of Loog Root” is erroneously rendered as “The Spy of Long Root.”

This is a volume of elegies, some lyrical, some raging against the dying of this literary light. Many of his students experienced him “dying. Then recovering, then dying again.” Some dreamed about him; some would “hover in his vicinity.” They came into his classes at the University of Alabama, or the MFA program at Old Miss, some knowing only his famous (or infamous) name. He would tell them that a story has a beginning, middle, and end; when asked for his best writing advice, he replied “Thrill me.” Some would rage against his honesty about their writing, so “brutal to a young undergraduate… that he never returned after the day his story was workshopped.” Yet, there is general agreement that this iconoclastic, avant-garde writer could spot talent in his students and that when he did he was unstinting in his encouragement and giving of himself, of his time, and finally of his possessions. He would send out their stories to publishers, take them fishing or motorcycle riding, or show up on a Saturday morning to praise a good story, surprising a student in her pajamas. They came to Ole Miss not necessarily because of the MFA program or even “to study with” Barry, but just because he was there, because “his presence was deeply felt by anyone who wrote and loved words in Oxford.” They were often “in too much awe to be near him...a transformative talent, a comet screaming by for select generations to witness.” One new student wondered, “And why would this rebel of language, this mastermind who had zapped to life a generation of younger writers, choose to pass time with a toady unknown kid from Boston he had met only a few days earlier?…Because, he now answers himself, Barry’s “kindness could have cured the lame.” He transformed their lives and their words. They write of him in Hannahesque language. To Editor Adam Young, “he was Quadberry: ‘Boys became men and girls became women’ as he directed [them]” through the M.F.A. program.

Barry was “eloquently vocal,” and the contributors to the book remember his unique voice, both actual and literary. His speaking voice is evoked poignantly by Darlin’ Neal: “Always that voice of his distinguishing itself from others…that told the funny heartbreaking stories….The voice that reflected in those kind eyes.” Poet Kurt Lipshutz declares:

        The English language fell in
        with BARRY HANNAH,
Sparks flew—
  from pen
    to page
      to eye
          to ear…

BARRY HANNAH is a treasure you can loot

for selfish gain, more Rabelais than Welty, trace elements of Clemens and O’Connor….”

Painter Glenray Tutor, upon first hearing Barry read from his fiction, remembers that it was “like receiving a high dose of literary radioactivity….. It was literature that was new….It was now [italics Tutor’s]…. [Airships] was an amazing combination of grace and danger.” And it...

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