Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Barry Hannah

Compared to some of Barry Hannah’s other talents, his genius for titles might not seem worth mentioning. But I’ve been reading the tributes and eulogies and remembrances that have followed his death on Monday and I’m a little surprised that no one has even nodded in the direction of his titles. So let me say here and now that the The Tennis Handsome is a wonderful title for a novel and that Captain Maximus--his 1985 story collection-- may the best title of anything, ever.

I went to see Barry Hannah read in, well, 1988, it must have been. I drove out from the city to a massive exurban community college campus with a friend from work--and there he was reading his story “Idaho.” It was already a story I liked and had gotten busy trying to imitate, but hearing him read it that night only made me goonier about it. After the reading, I joined the line of people wanting to get their books signed or talk with the author. I didn’t have anything in particular I wanted to ask Hannah. I just wanted to meet him. When I got to the head of the line, all I could think to say was, “honest sentiment,’ which is a phrase Hannah uses in the story to describe the poetry of Richard Hugo. Hannah, looked at me, blinked and said back, “honest sentiment, yeah.” And that was about it. It occurs to me now that my words might have been interpreted as a challenge or a mockery. I hope it didn’t come across that way. Anyway, Hannah did tell me that I had to read Hugo. Of course, I did as I was told, and, of course, I became a Hugo fan, too.

What I remember is that when I got up close to Hannah, he looked a little tired. Like maybe he had a little eye-strain headache. This was a surprise. So much of my idea of him as a writer was tied up in the wildness of his prose and his boozy, swaggering, motorcyclish motifs that, in my callowness, I was a little surprised to catch that small glimpse of ordinary vulnerability.

I’ll also remember how he said back to me, with a certain patience: “Honest sentiment.”

Here’s the opening of his novel Boomerang:

We were such tiny people in the Quisenberrys’ pecan orchard.

We were so tiny but we were sincere. The Quisenberrys’ house looked like a showboat on the Mississippi River, and when we were tiny we fought and we had secret intrigues. The kids would roam out and find pecans and horse apples and a stick of dynamite.

There were Reds and Nazis out there. . .

In my back yard Tommy Poates was in an Admiral television box moving slowly ahead, attacking the rest of us with an automatic rubber gun. Rod Flagler had brought in the idea of the automatic rubber gun from Culver City, California. The television box was as large as a refrigerator. Every time we ran up close, we got stung. We all dressed in short pants and nothing else. Fairly soon we learned not to get stung. Edward Ratliff set the box on fire with lighter fluid. It was quite amazing to see Tommy get out of the flaming box. Darn it, I'd never thought of that.