- Randall Kenan
The most memorable moments of my time at Sewanee tend to be the less predictable, unscheduled, highly human moments, like those with Barry Hannah in his latter years at the Conference.
Like the ill-fated night he decided to light up a cigarette in the downstairs bathroom of the Women's Center during a Richard Bausch reading, causing the alarms to thunder, and pushing Bausch into a comedic show until the alarms were doused twenty minutes later.
Or, after I had spent time with Barry in Fayetteville, Arkansas, at a conference, and in the little airport we shared coffee and stories, and he asked me about rap music, and to whom he should listen. Much to my surprise, I suggested Eminem, whose recent album I found particularly refreshing.
The next year at Sewanee, I was talking to some participants, three young fellows, outside the Women's Center, and Barry walked by. He stopped, turned to look at me, and said, "Randall, I really like that Eminem fella. Good stuff," and walked on by. I would pay good money to get young men to have such looks on their faces again and to regard me with such perplexed awe at any time in my life. [End Page 723]
But more, there were his actual readings.
In truth, I had reviewed Barry's story collection Bats out of Hell for the Boston Globe when it first came out in 1993. I adored the book, and essentially said so, but as book critics are wont to do, I mentioned the stories I found to be of lesser impact. I had never met Barry Hannah, but had heard stories of his ability to be quite the madman—bringing guns to school and laying them down on a desk in front of him; attacking people with bows and arrows—probably more myth than reality, I thought then, though now I know better. The next year I agreed to do a reading in New York City at the 92nd Street Y and soon learned I was to be paired with Barry Hannah. As you can imagine, this meeting provoked a great deal of anxiety in me. But I had no cause for worry; not only was Barry Hannah a gentleman of the highest order towards me, but I discovered that night he was also a virtuoso reader of his own prose.
Listening to Barry give a public reading was witnessing a tour de force. Barry could deliver a story with a calm quietness like a Yo-Yo Ma solo, steady, sonorous, yet underneath, as with the best of Bach's "Inventions," a simmering, symmetrical heat built and built. His unusual sentences, part Thomas Pynchon, part Flannery O'Connor, spoken with his guitar-strung Mississippi accent, left listeners spellbound; and the sheer force of his storytelling, by turns insane, throbbing with wild humanity, tender mercies, and withering insights, had the audience wild with laughter.
Barry loved himself some Bob Dylan. He told me, and others, on many occasions that his favorite album was Blood on the Tracks (the source of the title of his last book, Yonder Stands Your Orphan, came from the Dylan song "It's All Over Now, Baby Blue"). One conversation I regret I never got to have with Barry over on the porch of the French House was what he thought of Dylan having won the Nobel Prize. I think he would have approved. [End Page 724]
Randall Kenan is the author of a novel, A Visitation of Spirits, and a collection of stories, Let the Dead Bury Their Dead. He teaches creative writing at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.