Barry Hannah Hannah, Barry (Vol. 90) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Barry Hannah 1942–

American novelist, short story writer, and scriptwriter.

The following entry presents criticism on Hannah's works through 1995. For further information on his life and works, see CLC, Volumes 23 and 38.

Hannah is among the most prominent American Southern writers of the post-World War II period. His fiction, usually set in the contemporary South, contains unusual narrative twists, elements of absurd humor, surrealistic violence, and a thematic concern with sexuality. Hannah's use of the South as a microcosm for the human condition has invited comparisons to William Faulkner, and his creation of eccentric characters enmeshed in violence has reminded critics of the work of Eudora Welty and Flannery O'Connor. Most commentators, however, have continued to assert that Hannah possesses an original and distinctive comic voice.

Biographical Information

Born and raised in Mississippi, Hannah graduated from Mississippi College in 1964 and received an M.A. and an M.F.A. from the University of Arkansas in 1966 and 1967 respectively. From 1967 to 1973 he taught literature and fiction writing at Clemson University, and it was during his tenure there that he published his first two novels—Geronimo Rex (1972), which was nominated for a National Book Award, and Nightwatchmen (1973). He has since taught or been writer-in-residence at several universities, including the University of Alabama and the University of Iowa. His first collection of short stories, Airships (1978), received the Arnold Gingrich Award for short fiction from Esquire; Hannah has also been honored with a special award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters.

Major Works

Much of Hannah's work is distinguished by its Southern setting; its focus on male protagonists, particularly war veterans; its exploration of masculinity; and its emphasis on black humor, sex, and violence. In Hannah's first novel—Geronimo Rex, a ribald initiation tale centering on Harry Monroe, a Louisiana youth in search of meaning in his life—the protagonist's personal traumas are set against scenes of social upheaval in the South. Monroe also appears as a secondary character in Nightwatchmen, a farcical murder mystery centering on Thorpe Trove, a wealthy eccentric who, with the help of a seventy-year-old detective named Howard Hunter and various graduate students, attempts to solve a series of murders at a fictional Mississippi university. The twenty stories collected in Air-ships represent Hannah's experiments with narrative structure and his wide range of subject matter. For example, "Knowing He Was Not My Kind Yet I Followed" concerns a homosexual soldier's obsessive love for the Confederate general Jeb Stuart, while the cannibalistic story "Eating Wife and Friends" imagines the horrors of an American apocalypse. Hannah's next novel, Ray (1980), details the hallucinatory recollections and musings of an alcoholic Alabama doctor who was a pilot during the Vietnam War and often daydreams about the Civil War era. Through the novel's fragmented narrative, Hannah examines the tragedy of war with pathos and humor. The Tennis Handsome (1983) is a reworking of two unrelated stories from Airships: one about the exploits of a handsome tennis player and his demented coach, and the other about the return of a Vietnam War veteran to his hometown. Commentators note that in The Tennis Handsome, as in his previous works, Hannah depicts violence comically. Some of the stories in Captain Maximus (1985) eschew black humor and evince a more subdued approach for Hannah. "Getting Ready," for example, is a Hemingwayesque tale about a fisherman's attempt to catch a big fish; "Idaho" is a tribute to the late poet Richard Hugo. Set in a Mississippi university town, the novel Hey Jack! (1987) concerns several characters whose histories are narrated by Homer, a Korean War veteran and writer in his mid-fifties. The stories cumulatively reveal events from Homer's own life and touch on such themes as infidelity, vengeance, weakness, sexuality, and despair. Boomerang (1989) is an autobiographical novel in which the narrator ruminates about his life in a series of episodes that are connected by three boomerang-throwing sessions. Never Die (1991) is a western set in the frontier town of Nitburg, Texas, in 1910. Like many of Hannah's other works, the novel features several scenes of violence and revolves around the theme of revenge—the protagonist, a gunfighter whose kneecaps were broken at the behest of Judge Nitburg, has vowed to burn the town to the ground. In the collection Bats out of Hell (1993), which includes both realistic and surrealistic stories, Hannah examines themes of nihilism, violence, and war. For instance, "That Was Close, Ma" questions the validity of the Persian Gulf War, and "Hey, Have You Got a Cig, the Time, the News, My Face?" presents a successful biographer who, on an impulse, goes to a military school and shoots at the students with an air rifle.

Critical Reception

Critics have noted Hannah's recurrent focus on violence, heroism, masculinity, war, and his penchant for black humor. Commentators have also consistently admired his imaginative use of language and flair for satirical characterization. George Stade commented in a review of Captain Maximus: "Of the many American short-story writers who have recently won acclaim, Mr. Hannah is the most invigorating: he does not write in the prevailing style of scrupulous meanness, and the desperation of his characters is anything but quiet." Reaction to some of Hannah's more recent works, however, has been less enthusiastic. Hey Jack!, for instance, was criticized for reworking material and characters introduced in Hannah's earlier works, while Never Die was faulted for lacking fully developed characters and a compelling plot. Moreover, Hannah has been consistently attacked by critics for what they perceive as his sexist view of women. Nevertheless, commentators have continued to cite and praise the distinctiveness of Hannah's fiction. Charles Israel has stated: "Much of Hannah's fiction is experimental and belongs in the category of dark comedy. All of it composes a highly original portrait of American life, both past and present, particularly American life in the South. It is a fiction that is consistently poetic, with a language and style both dazzling and believable."

Principal Works

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Geronimo Rex (novel) 1972
Nightwatchmen (novel) 1973
Airships (short stories) 1978
Ray (novel) 1980
The Tennis Handsome (novel) 1983
Captain Maximus (short stories) 1985
Hey Jack! (novel) 1987
Boomerang (novel) 1989
Never Die (novel) 1991
Bats out of Hell (short stories) 1993

Barry Hannah with R. Vanarsdall (interview date 27 April 1982)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: An interview in The Southern Review, Louisiana State University, Vol. 19, No. 2, Spring, 1983, pp. 317-41.

[In the following interview, which was conducted on April 27, 1982, Hannah discusses his literary influences, his characters, and aspects of his personal life.]

[Vanarsdall]: To start off, who do you count as influences? You said Walker Percy meant a lot to you.

[Hannah]: Yeah, the one book Moviegoer. That was the one I read when I was reading into everything. I've read what you should have, Hemingway, Faulkner, and Joyce, but the Moviegoer was just an honest account by a fellow trying to be decent with a bit of glory...

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Richard Eder (review date 6 September 1987)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "A War Memorial in the Mind," in Los Angeles Times Book Review, September 6, 1987, pp. 3, 12.

[An American critic and journalist, Eder received a Pulitzer Prize for criticism in 1987. In the following review, he remarks favorably on Hey Jack!]

In the white hell of winter warfare in Korea, Homer, the narrator of Hey Jack! thought of going back to the Mississippi heat, girls and tennis games. But war is a universal condition, and once you have seen it, you recognize it anywhere, any time.

The recognition drives the narration of Barry Hannah's compelling novella. Years after the dreadful fighting around the Chosen Reservoir, the musty...

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Thomas R. Edwards (review date 1 November 1987)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Stolen Loves, Manly Vengeance," in The New York Times Book Review, November 1, 1987, p. 26.

[Edwards is an American educator and critic. In the following review, he asserts that Hey Jack! pales in comparison to Hannah's earlier works.]

Since his first novel, Geronimo Rex, won the William Faulkner Prize and a National Book Award nomination in the early 1970's, Barry Hannah has been a leading contender for Southern novelist of his generation. Every generation seems to want a Southern novelist of its own; there was Faulkner himself, and then Eudora Welty and Flannery O'Connor and Walker Percy and various other successors and claimants. But now there...

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Allen G. Shepherd, III (essay date 1987)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Latest Whiz-Bang: Barry Hannah's Captain Maximus," in Notes on Mississippi Writers, Vol. XIX, No. 1, 1987, pp. 29-33.

[In the following essay, Shepherd argues that Captain Maximus is a disappointing work that lacks the focus and freshness of Airships, Hannah's first collection.]

Perhaps exculpatory jacket copy on Barry Hannah's second collection of stories, Captain Maximus (1985), refers to the autobiographical derivation of a number of these thin and generally very short fictions. Slices from the author's life average only eight pages each and forty of the volume's ninety-eight pages are given over to an unused "idea" for a...

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Joanne Kennedy (review date 14 May 1989)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Underview," in The New York Times Book Review, May 14, 1989, p. 19.

[In the following review, Kennedy remarks favorably on Boomerang.]

Though middle age has chastened Barry Hannah a bit, the Mississippi macho-romantic is still a tremendous lover of the lustiness of life in his brief, minor but brilliant autobiographical novel. He has drawn on his own experience with insistent honesty in Geronimo Rex, Airships and six other novels and story collections, so there is little of a personal nature in Boomerang to surprise, except possibly his obsession with his childhood smallness and a certain wistfulness when he mentions other writers'...

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Pagan Kennedy (review date 1 August 1989)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Boy's Life," in The Village Voice, Vol. 34, No. 31, August 1, 1989, pp. 58-9.

[In the following review, Kennedy praises Hannah's style in Boomerang but finds it difficult to empathize with the author's persona.]

We must forgive Barry Hannah his inability to mention a woman without leering; we must forgive him his swaggering and name-dropping; we must forgive him because of his sentences.

In his latest, Boomerang, Hannah writes as sublimely and tersely as ever. He distills into hard little aphorisms the profound sound and fury of Southern oratory, the sensuous sermonizing of an entire people who've had a few slugs of whiskey and...

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Joseph Coates (review date 26 May 1991)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Barry Hannah's Wild West Gunman Seeks a Place Where a Boy Can Roam," in Chicago Tribune—Books, May 26, 1991, p. 3.

[In the review below, Coates remarks on Never Die.]

There are all kinds of ways to write good fiction. Barry Hannah's way is to kick capital-L Literature in the crotch and make it wail, a lively tradition that dates back at least to Mark Twain. Hannah's real medium is not prose but a kind of hillbilly haiku that proceeds one sentence at a time, sometimes with no apparent connection between them, and adds up to music—heavy on the brass but with a plaintive obligatto of fiddle, banjo and Jew's harp.

Novelist Richard Stern once...

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Janet Kaye (review date 7 July 1991)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Is Nitburg Burning?" in The New York Times Book Review, July 7, 1991, p. 18.

[In following review of Never Die, Kaye faults Hannah for not fully developing his characters.]

Barry Hannah can succinctly and with great good humor evoke the profound bewilderment of the human condition.

Consider, for example, the husband-narrator of the short story "Love Too Long," from Mr. Hannah's 1978 collection, Airships: "'You great bastard!' I yelled up there. 'I believed in You on and off all my life!'"

This element is still present in Mr. Hannah's ninth book, Never Die: "The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away....

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The New Yorker (review date 15 July 1991)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of Never Die, in The New Yorker, Vol. LXVII, No. 21, July 15, 1991, p. 79.

[In the excerpt below, the critic comments briefly on Never Die.]

After the uncharacteristic mildness of his last book, Boomerang, this Mississippi author has returned to form—and gone West—in a stylish and absurdist chronicle of revenge, misery, and mayhem. [Never Die] is set in a corrupt little South Texas frontier town, circa 1910, and it concerns the crippling of a caballero named Fernando Muré and his vow to burn down the iniquitous town. (A sub-theme is the promise of escape offered by newly invented forms of transportation: automobiles,...

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Ruth D. Weston (essay date Fall 1991)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "'The Whole Lying Opera of It': Dreams, Lies, and Confessions in the Fiction of Barry Hannah," in The Mississippi Quarterly, Vol. XLIV, No. 4, Fall, 1991, pp. 411-28.

[In the following essay, Weston focuses on issues of identity and self-worth in Hannah's male protagonists.]

In an interview for a 1984 volume of Contemporary Authors [Volume 110], Jan Gretlund asked Barry Hannah about the extent of his religious beliefs; and Hannah replied, "If I said that I believed in God, what would it mean? I proceed from the fact that there has been a great lie to me, from the word go. Somebody stands in the pulpit and says, 'I've just talked to God.' You get a little...

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Kenneth Seib (essay date Winter 1991–92)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "'Sabers, Gentlemen, Sabers': The J. E. B. Stuart Stories of Barry Hannah," in The Mississippi Quarterly, Vol. XLV, No. 1, Winter, 1991–92, pp. 41-52.

[In the excerpt below, Seib focuses on several of the stories in Airships and analyzes Hannah's mythic treatment of J. E. B. Stuart, a prominent general in the Confederate army during the American Civil War.]

The Confederacy's greatest cavalry officer, J. E. B. Stuart, has long been celebrated in Southern verse and story. John R. Thompson's elegy to the "radiant form" of Stuart, written on the day of the General's death in 1864, was the first of many poems to romanticize and mythologize the...

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Mark J. Charney (essay date 1992)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Autobiographical and the Violent: Geronimo Rex and Nightwatchmen," in Barry Hannah, Twayne Publishers, 1992, pp. 1-20.

[In the following excerpt, Charney analyzes Geronimo Rex and Nightwatchmen, focusing on structure, character, and such themes as violence and identity.]

In an interview with R. Vanarsdall for the Southern Review [Spring 1983], Hannah cited his innovative and controversial use of autobiography as a primary factor distinguishing his work from that of other Southern writers: "They remain obsessed by autobiography, but I use it as a mode to get to the real stuff which is almost always lying." Although often...

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Alex Raksin (review date 28 February 1993)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of Bats out of Hell, in Los Angeles Times Book Review, February 28, 1993, p. 6.

[In the following review, Raksin distinguishes the representation of violence in Hannah's works from that of such authors as Bret Easton Ellis.]

There's a scene in Barry Hannah's 1989 autobiographical novel Boomerang when Hannah, writing a screenplay at the Malibu mansion of director Robert Altman, realizes that he's working in a beautiful tower of Plexiglas with sea gulls flying overhead and the Pacific rolling in below. Squirming in discomfort at this "white man's dream of peace," Hannah quickly defiles it by turning on the radio: "I needed the music, the...

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Will Blythe (review date March 1993)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Hannah and His Sentences," in Esquire, Vol. 119, No. 3, March, 1993, p. 55.

[In the following excerpt from a review of Bats out of Hell, Blythe remarks on Hannah's characters and admiration for Jimi Hendrix.]

It's altogether fitting that Jimi Hendrix is one of Barry Hannah's idols and literary influences. Not only is there something sweet and otherworldly about both men that complicates their well-deserved reputations for wildness, there is also a parallel in their artistry. What Hendrix did with the guitar, Hannah does with prose: invent a whole new American music, viciously electric, of squawks and cries, of soul rhythms and extraterrestrial riffs....

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Marianne Wiggins (review date 7 June 1993)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "'Ride, Fly, Penetrate, Loiter'," in The Nation, New York, Vol. 256, No. 22, June 7, 1993, pp. 804-06.

[In the following review of Bats out of Hell, Wiggins comments on the major themes of Hannah's fiction and his insights into the male psyche.]

Who is he?

A railroad track toward hell?

—Anne Sexton, "Despair"

In the story "Rat-Faced Auntie," one of the twenty-three new Barry Hannah tales in Bats Out of Hell, someone gives a character named Edgar "books by Kerouac, Bukowski, Brautigan, Hemingway and Burroughs; also the poetry of Anne Sexton."...

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Ruth D. Weston (essay date Spring 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Debunking the Unitary Self and Story in the War Stories of Barry Hannah," in The Southern Literary Journal, Vol. XXVII, No. 2, Spring, 1995, pp. 96-106.

[In the following essay, which was first presented in an abbreviated form at the South Central Modern Language Association conference in October 1994, Weston examines themes of war, heroism, honor, and shame in Hannah's short stories about the American Civil War and the Vietnam War.]

In a new book on storytellers of the Vietnam generation. [Out of the Sixties: Storytelling and the Vietnam Generation, 1993], David Wyatt argues that literary generations are defined by, among other things, "the impact of a...

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Further Reading

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)


Burgin, Richard. "Burnt-Out Cases." Washington Post Book World XXIII, No. 11 (14 March 1993): 8.

Reviews Bats out of Hell, noting the savagery of Hannah's characters and the blackness of his humor.

Edwards, Thomas R. "Sad Young Men." The New York Review of Books XXXVI, No. 13 (17 August 1989): 52-3.

Review of Boomerang, Dennis Cooper's Closer, and Paul Auster's Moon Palace.

Krulish, Robert R. Review of Never Die, by Barry Hannah. West Coast Review of Books 16, No. 2 (1991): 46.


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