Barry Hannah Hannah, Barry (Vol. 23) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.)

Jim Harrison

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

"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 difficult act for him to follow.

Jim Harrison, "Three Novels: Comic, Cute, Cool," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1972 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), May 14, 1972, p. 4.∗

John Updike

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

["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 excellence lights up the sodden mediocrity of all else. Dream of Pines public education is detailed with morbid zest, and the Mississippi college that enrolls Harry seems even more ill-tuned to his inner melody. Nothing links up; Harry keeps dropping things halfway through, including an inspired jazz solo and several instances of sexual intercourse. He tends to see all women as "roaches"—high-school slang for female also-rans. The males he knows are possessed of isolating visions…....

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Jonathan Yardley

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[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 and solemnly intones: "This is living love. I choose life as opposed to death." All of which is entirely unexceptionable, predictable and thematically suffocating.

There are, to be sure, some flashes of Hannah's descriptive touch and offbeat humor…. But such moments are few and far between.

That is frustrating, for Hannah is a novelist of intelligence and imagination, and one hates to be harsh with him. But here he simply lets his imagination get the best of him: "Nightwatchmen" reads as though it were ripped through the typewriter without pause, rather than written with care and reflection. It is all well and good that Trove finds a place for himself in the Community of Man, but his journey there does not make for a persuasive or illuminating novel.

Jonathan Yardley, "'Nightwatchmen'," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1973 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), November 18, 1973, p. 34.

John Skow

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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 trick being turned really well, in the giddy scene in Lolita in which Humbert Humbert murders Quilty. But Quilty's merry assassination is the necessary and perfect result of situation and character. The jolly killings in Nightwatchmen have no such logicality; they occur simply because Hannah's dark angel told him to write them into the novel.

A gun-control law would serve Barry Hannah well. His splendid language is not often let loose by the nervous, jerky mood of the new novel. That is a pity. Lingo-slinging is a boy's stunt, usually; older writers lack the innocence and the energy. It would have been good to have one more wild, lingo-slinging novel from this rare young writer before he steadied down and learned to read music.

John Skow, "Pain and Fancy: 'Nightwatchmen'," in Book World—The Washington Post © 1973, The Washington Post), December 23, 1973, p. 3.

Michael Wood

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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 however exaggerated a manner, a whole complicated condition. When the stories don't work, they either just tell us what the condition is …, or indulge in a flailing, gratuitious violence…. When they work, as most of them do, and especially the brilliant and moving longer ones ("Testimony of Pilot," "Return to Return" and "Mother Rooney Unscrolls the Hurt"), they follow, with careful, sympathetic wit, the string of unlikely shocks and half-hearted enthusiasms that often make up a life. (p. 35)

Michael Wood, "Southern Comforts," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1978 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), April 23, 1978, pp. 1, 35.

Richard Locke

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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 stories unusual is that they have none of the creepy Spanish-moss effect of most "literary" Southern writing (Faulkner and Flannery O'Connor are, of course, the great exceptions), but are filled with a spontaneous regional sound: the voice of aggressively unsophisticated, reddust losers, Southern boys without big-town savvy. But this voice is all there really is to "Airships." Though Hannah has thrown in some New York, Vietnam and Civil War stories, the grotesqueries and apocalyptic 60's bits soon pall. Everything sounds the same. Heard one, heard 'em all. (p. 37)

Richard Locke, "Three Young Writers," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1978 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), May 21, 1978, pp. 3, 36-7.∗

Michael Malone

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Christopher Lehmann-Haupt

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Harry Crews

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[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...

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Eliot Fremont-Smith

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Ronald Nevans

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.)

Geoffrey Wolff

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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John Romano

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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