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.
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.
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.
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."