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REVIEW-ESSAY JOAN WYLIE HALL University of Mississippi Barry Hannah’s Bright Keyboard: A Reprise IN2010,THEPROGRAMCOVERFORTHESEVENTEENTHOXFORDCONFERENCE for the Book featured Maude Schuyler Clay’s vibrant photograph of Barry Hannah on the Oxford Square, with the tall statue of the Confederate soldier behind him. Hannah planned to attend the meeting as the honored guest; friends, family members, and fans were looking forwardtothe weekend festivities. Even though cancer, pneumonia, and other health problems had weakened his stamina, Hannah’s motorcycle was still a familiar sight in Oxford, often with an oxygen tank sharing the ride. When the author had a fatal heart attack at home on March 1, the conference was transformed—truly overnight—from a tribute to a memorial. In response, the stunned audience felt a tangle of emotions for three days of formal sessions and casual gatherings. The mixture of feelings was as dizzying as Hannah’s prose, which Ruth Weston summed up in her 1998 study, Barry Hannah: Postmodern Romantic, as a “linguistic blitz” (131). Conversations with Barry Hannah, a recent addition to University Press of Mississippi’s Literary Conversations series, provides valuable commentary on both the pleasures and perils in the fiction and the life. Dating from 1980 to 2010, most of his writing career, the eighteen pieces were selected by editor James G. Thomas, Jr., from books, radio programs, popular magazines, and scholarly periodicals. The questioners range from professional journalists to close friends and colleagues who had spent happy hours fishing and riding motorcycles with the author. Hannah’s bike gleams in the background of photographer Tom Rankin’s cover portrait. Hannah tells one interviewer that he likes “the possibility of danger” on a motorcycle, “the fact that you have to protect yourself on it without being foolish about it” (61). In the final Conversations interview, novelist Wells Tower calls him “America’s greatest living writer” (225), a writer who “wasn’t satisfied with just the right word, it had to be the fiery, ecstatic word, too, a Molotov cocktail against 634 Joan Wylie Hall syntactic dreariness” (226). The image hints at the violence and the sense of risk in Hannah’s fiction, a subject that is as ubiquitous in the interviews as queries about Hannah’s thoughts on William Faulkner. Hannah admits in the first interview that his writing “is always full of pain. . . . You get hurt and you tend to remember, if you’re human” (11). Another dialogue closes with his observation that we can do something about the suffering: “Life is a lot of confusion and pain and death, and the only way to deal with it is to face it with the attitude that there’s no place to go but up. ‘Sabers up, gentlemen!’ is the way I end Ray [1980]. That’s all I know. Straight ahead. Hit ’em high” (82). Speaking with National Public Radio’s Terry Gross, Hannah suggests the role of the comic in coping with anguish. He acknowledges his “obsession with mortality and physical pain” during the writing of Yonder Stands Your Orphan (2001) but adds, “I also hope you don’t miss the humor that saves us in the book” (148). Not surprisingly, Hannah praises the comic genius of Mark Twain and Flannery O’Connor in several interviews. As early as his first book, the largely autobiographical Geronimo Rex (1972), Hannah’s comedy is in strong evidence, often in the form of farce. He tells Marc Smirnoff that he based that novel’s Fleece on his Mississippi College roommate, who was “such a large character” that it was “wonderful just to hear him” (175). As Thomas says in his ten-page introduction, “Right out of the gate Hannah was a phenomenon, and critics roundly praised the debut of this new American voice in literature” (viii). From Hannah’s birth in Meridian, Mississippi, in 1942 through Grove Press’s posthumous publication of the story collection Long, Happy, Last in 2010, Thomas’s succinct chronology outlines such key events as teaching appointments, awards, and book publications. Similarly useful, the index leads readers to autobiographical comments on childhood, education, editors, friends, and favorite authors; references to history, violence, storytelling, and other major themes of Hannah’s fiction; and...

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Additional Information

ISSN
2689-517X
Print ISSN
0026-637X
Pages
pp. 633-639
Launched on MUSE
2020-02-27
Open Access
No
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