A birthday tribute to the late Mississippi author by Kayla Smith.
“Ask people about him, and either they’ll say they’ve never heard the name (despite his nominations for both the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize) or they’ll get a feverish, ecstatic look before they seize you by the lapels and start reeling off cherished passages of his work,” wrote author Wells Tower about the late novelist Barry Hannah. “Barry’s work drove people to fanaticism. I know a writer who memorized the first five pages of Hannah’s novel ‘Ray‘ and someone else who claims he’s bought 200 copies of ‘Airships‘ just to hand out to people who haven’t read it.”
I came across this interview between Tower and Hannah in an issue of The Believer a couple of years ago (the same interview can be found in an earlier issue of Garden and Gun), and though I’d already read Wells Tower, I had barely heard of this man whom Tower claimed was “arguably the Deep South’s best living writer you have perhaps never read.” The statement may well have been true until Hannah’s death at the age of 67, three years ago in March.
My sister lives in Clinton, Mississippi – Hannah’s hometown and home of Mississippi College, where Hannah was a pre-med student before changing his major to literature. In the small bookstore off the edge of campus last year, I picked up Hannah’s first novel, “Geronimo Rex.” “He was from here, you know,” the owner told me. “Real controversial.” She shook her head, disapproving. “Quite a reputation. Drunk.” I bought the book anyway.
Though he never became a household name, Barry Hannah certainly achieved fame among other writers. Truman Capote called him “the maddest writer in the U.S.A.,” and Richard Ford said, “We stand in awe of him.” Quite the reputation, indeed.
I doubt there are many students at Mississippi College today who’ve read Hannah, and I doubt there are many in Clinton or the rest of Mississippi who remember the day we lost this great writer. But there’s time for readers to discover him still.
“In Hannah’s panoramas, you’ll find hints of William Faulkner, rumbles of Charles Bukowski and the tongue-in-cheek grotesquerie of David Lynch,” continues Tower. “But the fierce inventiveness of Hannah’s prose makes him something sui generis entirely, a writer who renders the project of comparison a farce.”
Celebrate Barry Hannah’s birthday today by buying one of his novels and find out what you’ve been missing.
A native of Picayune, Mississippi, Kayla Smith is an intern with Deep South. Find out more about her in our Contributors section.
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