Hannah, Barry (Vol. 23)
Barry Hannah 1942–
American novelist and short story writer.
Hannah writes exuberant fiction set in the contemporary South. Because of his Southern background he is inevitably compared to other Southern writers: to Faulkner for his use of the South as microcosm and to Welty for his choice of eccentric characters enmeshed in violence. However, most critics agree that Hannah has an original and distinctive comic voice.
His novels include Geronimo Rex, a ribald initiation tale, and Nightwatchmen, an outrageous murder mystery. Many of the short stories collected in Airships were first published in Esquire. Their distinction derives from unusual narrative twists, impressionistic plots, and surrealistic violence.
(See also Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 6.)
"Geronimo Rex" is a stunning piece of entertainment, almost a totally successful book…. Hannah is one of those young writers who is brilliantly drunk with words and could at gunpoint write a life story of a telephone pole. He strains for the bon mot and comes up with half a dozen….
"Geronimo Rex" is vulgar, sexual, ribald and wildly comic. The writing is intricate enough to make it hard to believe that it's really a first novel. The hero, Harriman Monroe, is taken from age 12 to 24, a rather stupidly formless idea but sweet and inevitable here; a sort of Nonnus act of making "a heap of all I have met."
"Geronimo Rex" presents a South that appears strikingly more lively and contemporary than the North. No auspicious ancestors and drooling dwarfs and hyper-sexed Georgia peaches here, though there is the believable panoply of racism, youthful corruption and a secondary hero named Bobby Dove Fleece, a pre-med student, who delivers a three-page monologue that is preposterously raffine. Of course, "people don't talk like that" and that is precisely why I liked the book so much. "Geronimo Rex" is old fashioned in the sense that all the actions and characterizations are accelerated and energized, larger than life as it is ordinarily perceived by those who would settle for less. The characters are too lively to be likable, too possessed and frayed ever to be charming. A fine debut for Mr. Hannah and a very...
(The entire section is 273 words.)
["Geronimo Rex"] belongs to an older tradition—the whining-adolescent novel of the fifties. The action begins in 1950, when the hero, Harry Monroe, is eight years old, and ends in the middle sixties, when he is married and a graduate student of English at the University of Arkansas. America broke in two in those years, when Johnson committed the half-million troops to Vietnam, and the new consciousness … figures in "Geronimo Rex" as a bleak dawn, an irony heavily in hock to despair, an accelerating incoherence in the never very tightly woven events that make up the novel's action…. The major weakness of a first novel like this is its limp susceptibility to autobiographical accident; its vitality must lie not in the shaping but in the language of the telling, and here Mr. Hannah is no mean performer. His whine is full-throated…. (p. 121)
With the verve of the young Bellow but with little of Bellow's love, Mr. Hannah can seize a person and hurl him into print…. The author does not shy from pushing an image into absurdity, and pulling it out on the other side…. Some of the metaphors carry the shock of real poetry…. (p. 122)
All this energy of expression, however, adorns a listless and ugly tale whose dominant mood is funk…. The Dream of Pines Colored High School has funnelled its meagre resources into a crack marching band, "that played Sousa marches and made the sky bang together;" this flare of...
(The entire section is 793 words.)
[Barry Hannah's] first novel, "Geronimo Rex," was published last year to general, if tempered, praise; it is a crazy and messy piece of work which unravels in the end, but it has admirable energy, exuberant humor and a genuine feel for what it is like to grow up in the contemporary South. But "Nightwatchmen" is another matter altogether; it is simply a mess.
What we have here is dimestore philosophizing, uncertain satire and rambling story-telling. "Nightwatchmen" attempts to be a consideration of love and death and points in between, but it sustains so little narrative interest that its unastonishing conclusions are scarcely worth the labor of reaching them. The novel does not seriously shake my conviction that Hannah is a talented and promising novelist, but any admirer of "Geronimo Rex" is likely to wish that the author had kept "Nightwatchmen" to himself….
Before "Nightwatchmen" reaches its conclusion, Hannah has brought in everything from Hurricane Camille, to a prostitute who discovers true love (and pays a high price for it), to an avuncular old private eye, to a variety of exercises in sex and violence. Poor Trove finds love and then loses it, but in the end he discovers Hope.
For a novel as preoccupied as this one is with death and violence, the conclusions it reaches are surprisingly mushy; The Knocker, for instance, turns out to be a loner who marries the newly-goldenhearted prostitute...
(The entire section is 383 words.)
Of all the rich array of error in a book reviewer's repertoire of philistinism, the worst may be that of falling in love with an author's first novel, and then despising his second because it is not an exact copy of the first. Well, let error rain down. I thought, and so reported, that Barry Hannah's first novel Geronimo Rex was rousing work; mainly because of the author's joyous gift for throwing language around. And I think that Hannah's second novel, Nightwatchmen, is a perverse and disappointing mistake….
Hannah's attention seems to have become fixated on jokey murder. It is the entire substance of Nightwatchmen, and it does not make good sense or senselessness. At Southwestern Mississippi University, Hannah postulates, a midnight skulker circulates through the faculty offices of Old Main, bopping profs on the head and leaving them unconscious. Punishing bores, the as yet unbopped faculty members speculate. Then a series of gratuitous murders begins in the classroom building….
Funniness is in the throat of the chuckler, and what puts these enormities in the category of humorous goings-on is that they are observed by a crew of academic layabouts whose view of life is so detached as to be schizoid.
There is nothing inherently wrong in trying to write murder as existential farce, but there is a good deal that is inherently difficult. I can think of only one instance of the...
(The entire section is 374 words.)
Biloxi, Vicksburg, Mobile, Newark, Santa Fe, Richmond, Atlanta, Tuscaloosa: The names all appear in Barry Hannah's striking book of short stories ["Airships"] and the places are mostly Southern. Mr. Hannah's territory is "the new American South," and the new economy of the South appears in one story as something like a frame of mind…. (p. 1)
But Barry Hannah is not really a regional writer, except perhaps in the sense that "Dubliners" is a regional work…. Mr. Hannah not only has a voice of his own, but a precise, personal inflection. There is a kinship with Eudora Welty, perhaps, or Flannery O'Connor—an eccentric response to a world of fading but rigid social convention—but Mr. Hannah's style is more abrupt. His South is more scattered, too, and seems finally to represent an America that is to be found East, North and West as well, a disheveled modern country caught between Shiloh and Vietnam, dreaming almost tenderly of violence …, and plagued by recent memories that already have the force of ancient legend….
Mr. Hannah's narrators and Mr. Hannah himself are all engaged in a single project: telling or facing up to tall stories, sometimes with horror, sometimes with glee. Mr. Hannah delivers whoppers, for instance, "big loose ones," as he says his old men do….
But the truth or falsehood of these stories is not the point. Or rather, their truth lies in their capacity to display, in...
(The entire section is 337 words.)
In recent weeks—somewhat to our suprise—we have run three front-page reviews of fiction by young American writers. Mary Gordon's "Final Payments" is her first novel; John Irving's "The World According to Garp" is his fourth; Barry Hannah's "Airships" is his first collection of stories, though he has already published two novels…. These young writers deserve praise: they are strong and original and clearly in touch with life, not just with literary games and fashions. Their books are very different in scale and subject and style, and each of them has a different literary strength: Mary Gordon has a sharp eye for character and social detail; John Irving has a large gift for narrative and structure; Barry Hannah has a distinctive comic voice. (p. 3)
Barry Hannah's stories in "Airships" are reverse chic: he has a casual redneck charm, a garrulous late-60's anarchy, with lots of sexist leering, a cast of Mississippi drunks, cuckolds and disarming liars, and an offhanded way with plot and structure. The speaker is always the same: he comes on as the voice of the New South, a Country-and-Western homme moyen sensuel, your average horny s.o.b., just trying to get along in his crazy violent American world. So Barry Hannah often sounds like a sour-mash William Saroyan. He is nothing if not charming, but he is also sloppy, self-indulgent, and writes as if a loose colloquiality were all there is to Vonnegut or Brautigan. What makes his...
(The entire section is 356 words.)
In an ultimate, though not obvious way, Hannah's stories [in Airships] are fused together thematically; the tactic is reminiscent of Faulkner's Go Down Moses. Individually, they are beautifully built, but the construction work is so organic that he didn't have to leave the braces showing….
More writers have been smuggled out of the South than cartons of cigarettes, and Barry Hannah is one of the best…. His feel for [the short story] form is amazingly sound—perhaps more so than in the slower narrative of the novel; his verbal exuberance and comic energy do exhilarate, and when tools and material work together, Hannah can make you a masterpiece…. Reading Airships is like having lightning shark down at you in the dark. It illuminates where you are. It can scare you half to death.
Within all the raucous, lyric, sly, spooked, and innocent voices of his people, Hannah's voice is unmistakable. Not that he never makes mistakes: the violence in "Coming Close to Donna" and "Quo Vadis, Smut?" is stylistically uncontrolled, and the capstone endings smack of the worst of Esquire. But almost always, his writing is pure and easy because perfectly self-confident. It slides on the edge of excess with a playful ease; there is, as he said of a brilliant tennis player, "something peaceful in the violent sweep of his racket." His characters' lives may be small, but their voices are loud and large. Lost...
(The entire section is 667 words.)
In "Ray," Barry Hannah's startling new novel, set in the American South, we have come a long way from the hanging moss and stately columns of the antebellum era. In "Ray," we have come by way of Faulkner, Flannery O'Connor, Tennessee Williams, Walker Percy, and Harry Crews, to an image of the South that perhaps is best captured by Mr. Hannah's description of the Hooches' home in Tuscaloosa, Ala. "The others of the street are not of their homes as much as the Hooches. The loud and untidy failures of the Hooches pour from the exits. Their broken car is on the curb in front, pasted over with police citations. Around the base of a ragged bush near the front door is wrapped an old rotten brassiere. In the small front yard parts of toys and soaked food lie. A rope hangs from a second-story window. The drainpipe has been beaten out of place by the children."
Not that this is the only image of the new South that appears in "Ray." Indeed, it's remarkable how much of what we think of as quintessentially Southern has been worked into the 62 fragments that compose this brief fiction….
Ray is a violent-tempered alcoholic, a bad poet, a bigot, a womanizer, a wastrel, an irresponsible adventurer who steals and crashes other people's Learjets and administers drugs to the un-needy….
But Ray embodies certain contradictions. Honor and ignominy: he dreams of charging across a field with Jeb Stuart in the Civil War,...
(The entire section is 374 words.)
What kind of story can be told by a jet fighter pilot who fought—who fights—in the Civil War? The answer is a damn fine one. [In Ray] Barry Hannah very nearly merges reader and experience, greatly diminishing the distance that has always separated the two. In this novel, there are no transitions of time or space, but what emerges is a narrative that has the kind of unity and coherence that we associate with the best fiction. Every action, incident and perception echoes every other….
This novel hangs in the memory like a fishhook. It will haunt you long after you have finally put it down. Barry Hannah is a talent to reckon with, and I can only hope that Ray finds the audience it deserves.
Harry Crews, "Carry on, Doctor," in Book World—The Washington Post (© 1980, The Washington Post), November 16, 1980, p. 4.
(The entire section is 144 words.)
[While] "Ray" is the funniest, weirdest, soul-happiest work of fiction by a genuinely young American author that I've read in a long while, ordinary reviewerese is no help in explaining why. You need a fresh lingo to do justice to this much magic, mystery and hilarity. You need new strategies, new arguments, new adjectives, new everything….
Plot-wise "Ray" is not one of your page-turners. But in its course at least one accident occurs—Ray steals a Learjet downed by Pfeifer Wire, flies it to Canada, crashes it and survives—and also a tragedy…. Equally worth mention is that the book ends with affirmation. On the final page Ray himself is still kicking, ablaze with desire, hope, delight not only in his surviving friends and children, but also in the glory of the Southern Past….
Among many pleasures afforded by "Ray" I would single out the descriptions of objects located in the foliage of a ravine behind the Hooch domicile. I particularly enjoyed an abandoned station wagon "with [a] wooden Indian at the steering wheel now rotting off the fierce colors of its face." Numerous exchanges in dialogue also struck me as memorable….
Still another pleasure for me lies in Ray's unique manner of speech: You do not fault a person who identifies his girlfriend's grandmother as "a Presbyterian missionary killed by the gooks." (p. 7)
On the matter of relationships between "Ray" and works...
(The entire section is 921 words.)
Barry Hannah's Ray … is a song. Sharp and snappy snatches for the most part, above the electrics, cool and hot, of being alive….
It's announced to be a novel, and there is a thread of a story to cling to as necessary, though the southern milieu—slice-of-Americana-now—is just as handy. Mostly it's the recollections and musings—sorrows and ecstacies, dreams and encounters—of a bright, horny, 33-year-old Alabama doctor whose first two names are Ray and Forrest (we never learn the last) and who sings and hums (occasionally yells) us through the book in both the first and third persons…. There are the glums of course—irritations that boil over at the tragedies of life and at a humdrumness that robs tragedy of honor (Ray is quite often a gallant knight trapped in a Jiffy Mart), and wincing periods of "no nookie"—but make no mistake, Ray is an upper….
Devices. A brain is not a device, it's there, and Hannah uses it. The first-and-third-person stuff is a device, and Hannah uses it superbly. Ray isn't a "natural" book, though it seems that way—one believes everything—but a most artful contrivance. The artfulness deliberately pokes through, which gives the book its panache and is at the same time its substance. Ray has moral tone. (p. 45)
[The] third-person switcheroos allow sentiments—real life—to become ironies. Plus, that's where Ray's...
(The entire section is 620 words.)
Barry Hannah, who wrote the extravagantly praised Airships, is a master of the short form. Yet [Ray] often reads like a collection of sketches. It is diffuse—characters are introduced once and forgotten, incidents go nowhere—and this failure of continuity deprives the book of the cumulative power it should have. Ray is laconic, mean, raunchy, and very funny, but not as moving as it means to be. (p. 72)
Ronald Nevans, "Fiction: 'Ray'," in Saturday Review (copyright © 1980 by Saturday Review; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), Vol. 7, No. 15, November, 1980, pp. 70, 72.
(The entire section is 90 words.)
The sometimes third-person hero who gives the title to [Ray], usually told by him in first person, is an alcoholic medical doctor and veteran jet fighter pilot alive and troublemaking right now. He flew from a carrier over Vietnam from 1967 to 1969, and now he has children, his second marriage has gone to hell, he teaches American civilization at the local college, has enjoyed love and lust with Sister Hooch, who has been shot dead by a religious fanatic. Ray steals a Learjet and it crashes, and he survives. Oh, the thing begins to sound a dime a dozen, another low-budget extravaganza, one of those country tent-shows of modernist fiction that camp on the back pages of the book review sections on their way down the road to Marboro Country.
Ray is nothing like that. Like Hannah's previous book of stories, Airships, it has energy, acuity of observation, stamina, formal beauty, wit, a [bold signature with unsettling transitions]…. The book also, for all the seemingly reflexive (even conventional) bizarrerie of its plot, plunders (with a few misbegotten indulgences, abuse of license) felt and experienced life. (p. 31)
[Occasional] lapses into the attitudinal and portentous are rare, but they are hurtful…. Two other failures, I think: the flaming plane wreck was probably a bad idea, and Hannah's serious wish to marry the past with the present ("I live in so many centuries. Everybody is still...
(The entire section is 406 words.)
In its peculiar way—and its way is endlessly peculiar—Ray is a novel of the South….
[Barry Hannah's world] has the lyricism and silliness-with-a-straight-face of a Steinberg cartoon. Despite the background of violence and disorder—the sirens and the asylum are near—its immediate subject is quaintly untroubled, just as Steinberg's multicolored, melodramatic smears of mauve and blue and red coexist with simpler line-drawing….
The book is crowded—slim as it is—with … random evils. You have only to watch your local news broadcast, read small-town papers or the New York Daily News to know how commonplace they are—and the knowledge is important for appreciating that Hannah is not making a metaphor out of the purposeless violence in American life. Ray merely happens to work in a hospital, where he has to repair its victims. (p. 25)
The postmoral protest against absurdity and violence, the exuberant sex and the mordant comedy work powerfully well in Hannah's third novel. Ray lacks the punch of his earlier collection, Airships, however. The protagonist's personal life is overdone, superficial and boring. All too predictably, he winds up in the local asylum. It is only vis-à-vis the novel's smalltown citizens—the Hooch family, for instance, who are the most lovable white trash anyone has dared to portray in any medium—that Ray is a compelling...
(The entire section is 341 words.)