Dragged Fighting from His Tomb
by Brad Watson
An essay from A Short Ride: Remembering Barry Hannah, ed. Louis Bourgeois, forward by Neil White. VOX Press & Nautilus Publishing, 2012
I was finishing my BA at Mississippi State when I first heard of Barry Hannah. I’d come to love MSU and Starkville, but all the same I’d been a miserable person then: very young and already divorced; separated from my son; awkward and speechless among my peers, who seemed half my age; poor; unhealthy. I took to writing fiction day and night, hardly reading for my classes, making Bs and Cs. Writing, I figured, would have to save my life. I had a girlfriend for about six weeks, total. Among other jobs, I was work-study in the English Department and my parting gift from them was a Webster’s College Thesaurus. My earlier idea of earning a PhD had become a public joke. One of my mentors called me a master of the malapropism, if nothing else. He that had conceived of the thesaurus gift, as part of the joke, given my grand ignorance and abuse of the English language to that point.
There was the confluence of a classmate loaning me a copy of Geronimo Rex, and my writing professor, Price Caldwell, telling me there was something called a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing that they offered just down the road in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. I was stunned by both discoveries: by the existence of a terminal degree in creative writing, and of course even more so by this Hannah, a boy from Clinton, hardly less humble origins than my own. It would turn out we’d been born in the same hospital, old Riley’s in Meridian, but I would learn that only later. Reading Geronimo was very much one of those You can do this? moments (along with a sinking I could never do that—how does he do that?). That Hannah was then on the Alabama faculty sealed it. I applied there and to nowhere else.
I was indeed a disillusioned student of literature, soured on the Ph.D., and had thought myself doomed to return home and write for my hometown newspaper, The Meridian Star, an afternoon daily, meaning I’d be at work every day by 4:00 a.m., writing about petty public conflicts among adults I despised. For two years I’d been writing almost nothing but short stories, stacks of them, all terrible, but it was all I wanted to do. This work though bad had given me enough delusional confidence to obscure the notion I might be rejected and have to slink home after all, defeated, at the mercy of hacks more bitter than I. When Caldwell saw the stories I’d sent with my application, he visibly deflated and said, “I hope you didn’t send this one.” I was injured by his bald honesty, but somehow Alabama accepted me. Possibly the pool was a little weak that year.
There was a symposium at Alabama that spring, my last semester at State. I believe it was on 18th Century literature, and I went along with others from our department just so I could see the town and, I hoped, meet Barry Hannah. I wanted to know what I was getting into.
It was spring, and the leaves were out thickly and the rain was light and shining on the leaves and the streets and in the gray air in that humid town on the bluff above the Black Warrior River. A good day to hit some bars. Which was Barry’s way of showing me the town. We met in his office in Morgan Hall, then got into his car, a mid-seventies powder-blue Ford LTD, and began a tour. Barry seemed healthy, even kind of stocky, which I’d later learn was fairly anomalous of his condition. His jeans were tight. I think he was wearing some kind of mod boots, some descendant of the Beatles’ invasion footwear. Also an enormous pair of rock-star-shaded eyeglasses, and his very cool mop of dark hair. Chain-smoking Marlboros. A voice like you wished your dad or big brother had, a sweet low growl, ironic and serious at once, wise and vulnerable in acceptable ways. We’d go to one bar – say, Lee’s Tomb, a bar on the bluff above the river, portraits of Lee’s generals on the walls – have a drink or two, and then drive around, touring the town, then stop in at another bar, The Chukker, or some place on the Strip. Then tour a little more. At one point, we stopped at Barry’s house to grab a couple of beers from the fridge to sip on while driving around. This was the nice, spacious Tudor Barry and Patricia, his second wife, lived in on elegant little Caplewood Drive.
Barry rambled his hands around inside the fridge, moving stuff, looking for a couple of tall-boy Falstaffs he’d left in there. The sun had come out and now filtered itself in a golden way through the big window at the far end of the kitchen, the dining area, where Barry’s wife Patricia and a couple of his children or step-children seemed clustered, watching us without speaking to Barry as he called out, “Patty, where are those beers I had in here? I was sure I’d left some Falstaffs in here.” I looked at Patricia and the kids huddled by the dining table in the golden light and what I saw in their grave expressions, their stiff postures – there was some kind of domestic fear present here – told me that the Falstaffs, and probably any other booze in the house, had been disappeared. Oblivious or unconcerned, Barry gave up on the phantom Falstaffs, told Patricia that he was showing me around town and would be home later, and we left.
I pretty much knew then what I was getting into. But I also knew this man had written Geronimo Rex (I had not yet read the second novel, Nightwatchmen, a critical crash that we can now see held promise of the exquisite and unique strangeness of the later stories), so I didn’t give a damn.
It went a little downhill from there. Barry moved from beer to Jack and Coke. Whereas earlier he’d been chatty, cheerfully pointing out this landmark or that, describing the virtues of this bar or bartender or that, some aspect of the riverside landscape, a copse of elm, driving casually, smoking, offering smokes, laughing, he began to quieten, his own brow furrowed, and he silently glared at the road ahead of us as we drove down Bryant, or swept along below the bluffs on River Road. When we stopped at Solomon’s, it was still only mid-afternoon, and we were two of only three or four patrons in the basement pub.
“Jack and Coke,” Barry said, ignoring me. I ordered a beer. We sat drinking. Barry looked at nothing on the bar in front of him. Finally he said, as if to himself, “You wouldn’t believe how beautiful my wife is naked.”
This was uttered not so much as a statement of wonder, but in the way of words that might lead to physical combat. It was like prison-yard lingo, somehow, like the time a slit-eyed man in a bar muttered to my brother, following some innocuous comment, “If you’re feeling froggy, just jump.” I protested, wary, “I wouldn’t know.”
He looked up from his Jack and Coke and looked at me, steady. “You’d better not.” He didn’t smile. He seemed to mean it. I was baffled and put on guard.
Had that golden light, I wondered, filtered itself also through Patricia’s clothing, at their dining table window, revealing the outline of a beautifully naked female form? Alas, egad, I hadn’t even noticed, if so. How fortunate! How typically obtuse. Barry dropped me off at the dorm I was staying in for the weekend. He removed the full ash tray from the LTD’s dash, handed it to me, and said, “Dump that out in the lot before you go.” He was serious. I took the ashtray and dumped its contents onto the parking lot pavement beside the car.
Not until the following year would I read Airships and see these lines, in “Water Liars”: “You could not believe how beautiful and delicate my wife is naked. I was driven wild by the bodies that had trespassed her twelve and thirteen years ago.” It was the beginning of what would become two years of working with Barry, as his student, his sometimes pal, for a brief while his imagined adversary, at a time when very possibly the line in his mind between his life and his fiction was at its most blurred or, should I, the failed academic, say: conflated. Intentionally so. When Barry was working on the stories in Airships and later on Ray, he practiced some kind of literary voodoo, the writer’s equivalent of an actor’s “method,” it seemed to me. He would become Ray, call himself Ray, use himself to get at Ray, when he was combining writing and drinking. He would say, drinking or sober, that booze took him to the very edge of something, where he could exist in that zone or dimension that was neither here nor there, fictional but real, like a customized acid trip wherein the stories and events were concocted, tested out in the world. Years later, when he’d long quit drinking, he would still refuse to condemn his combination of drinking and writing in those days, insisting that when he got the combination just right, or if he could, the results were incandescent. He held forth no righteous condemnation of his past ways, although he later expressed regret about their effects on his loved ones. He had practiced a private, dark art of taking himself into a place no other human being walking around with him could, if they were honest about it, profess to co-inhabit. And for a long while this was the only place he believed allowed him access to that voice, the sound and sensibility that writers including Ozick, Kazin, Roth, and Dickey proclaimed to be uncanny, ingenious. Of course, when Barry did quit drinking, after his father died, he began to pour forth with the amazing and uncanny stories in Bats Out of Hell, proving (to some at least) that this power was in Barry himself, not in the zone. The zone was something that existed in Barry Hannah, avec or sans le firewater. When I asked him where in the hell the voice in “Evening of the Yarp” came from, he virtually shrugged and said he’d heard that Ozark dialect when he was in school at Arkansas, and always wanted to put it into a story.
That first year at Alabama went well enough. There was always that sweet, ironic side to Barry when he wasn’t entirely in the zone. I’d spent the summer playing racquetball and getting a tan and Barry kidded me about it, said they’d make me a star but I’d have to “lose the tan,” work hard. He always made it to workshop in pretty good shape, although there was a steady general decline. He usually came in with a stadium cup of Jack or something else and Coke, so we students started to bring in six-packs of cheap beer. We threw the windows open, the smokers smoked, and we talked about the stories. I remember feeling affirmed at Barry’s dismissal of a Robert Coover story that I, too, had thought a gimmicky, gratuitous display of “experimental” writing. I liked his style: right to the heart of the story, its merits and its failures. I didn’t mind when he told me in workshop one time that my story was simply no good, I should just throw it out. “It’s just not any good,” he said. He said some cops he’d been hanging around with that week had read it and had pronounced it a real bore, too. So I threw it away. Another story or two he praised as sharp, funny. About another he wrote, simply, “This story has no ending, Brad. The ending must be full of power and light” (this was years before the Altman screenplay treatment of that title, which appeared as a story in Captain Maximus). I came to realize on my own that the story as a whole didn’t have much to bring to its ending. Barry’s terse and limited commentary was a form of tact, discretion, even mercy.
But by the end of the year – I think it was the end of that first year, although it may have been mid-year, because the University brought in a couple of subs during my time there – Barry finally overdid it and went to the hospital, regular or mental, detox in any case. He’d taken to hanging out with a couple of MFA hangers-on, sycophants, staying out all night. Barry and one of them knocked on my apartment door one particular 3:00 a.m. Barry said they’d been shooting his Ruger .22 semi-auto pistol into stacks of lumber at the local mill. He said they’d decided they were fed up, disgusted, and were going to end it, put one through the temple. He raised his shirt and pulled the Ruger from his belt, handed it to me, and asked if I didn’t want to go first. I declined. Barry took the pistol back, somewhat grudgingly I judged. I have no idea what, at that moment, he would have said or done had I actually put the barrel to my head. Was he playing with me, with us, himself? Yes. But where was the line? I don’t know. Here’s my guess: the gun wasn’t loaded. But it was a semi-auto, so I didn’t know that, and it would have been unforgivable to pop open the clip, check the chamber. He offered to bust down my duplex neighbor’s door and shoot the stereo on which this fellow had been playing his big band music obnoxiously loud, interfering with my work. I was sorely tempted by this offer, since I couldn’t stand this loser and his taste in music, but demurred and said I preferred we didn’t do that, either. Somewhat at a loss about what to do next, or say, Barry and the sycophant left then, driving the MG Midget Barry loved so much, the one he would famously shoot through the floor one day after a rain when he’d left the top down, in order to drain it.
After his detox, the detox that would be rendered so beautifully in Ray (“There are dry, tiny horses running in my veins,” the 300 pound nurse, etc.) I went to see him, dropped by the sunny Tudor house. Barry was upstairs. He came down, clean and dressed like a golfer in pressed slacks and a bright-yellow summer shirt. He greeted me like an old friend he hadn’t seen in a long time, talked for a while. I was astounded. It was a transformation on the surreal scale, strangely sober and inscrutably diminished. This was a very sweet and charming fellow, but not one I’d ever met before. I was moved and embarrassed to feel so needy for more of this side of the man, who seemed to welcome me on respectable terms, including that of master and worthy apprentice. It was closer to but not really even the sweet and nice man I’d see again years later in Oxford, the older man also sober but having absorbed the madness of his brilliant young era into a shrewd and subtle, cogent intelligence that cut through blathering small talk without anger and belligerence, without Geronimo’s murderous indignation, his wit a small sharp dagger to the sweet fat gut of the bovine, oblivious, morally and emotionally stupid and lame. This younger clean-cut man, presenting no danger to me or anyone around him whatsoever, was a pleasant relief, but it wasn’t really Barry Hannah. Barry Hannah at that time was still very much a volatile work-in-progress.
And so of course that bright, golden-hued, Hollywood-lighted moment did not, could not last. By the following fall, 1979, Barry was deeply into Ray, and I’d moved into a large rental house with another graduate student. Barry would bring over rough draft pages of Ray, ask us to read them while he paced in the living room, knocking a wadded up piece of notebook paper around the room with a tennis racquet, dressed in tennis garb, short white shorts and a tight polo, white socks, sneakers, smoking a cig, knocking something off the mantel with a hard volley of the paper wad, “Sorry about that.” He was drinking again, heavy, then heavier, at some point separated from Patricia and moved into a tiny garage apartment almost directly across the street from the Tudor they’d shared. That must have been comforting for her. Especially after he shot the arrow through the window of the Tudor that time, from the driveway of his new place across the street, there on elegant little Caplewood Drive. I went over sometimes, to the apartment. Once, at 4 a.m., solicitous, Barry suddenly worried I wasn’t eating enough (he wasn’t eating at all). He pulled a Styrofoam container from the fridge and said it was leftover barbeque and I should eat it. There was green stuff growing on it, and it smelled more like old beef stroganoff than barbeque. But I ate it. I’d once hopped over a rain puddle to keep my desert boots dry and Barry had wondered aloud if I wasn’t some kind of pussy. That was the morning he showed up at Morgan Hall looking in his eyes as if he were not seeing Morgan Hall, or me, but whatever world Ray was living in, which was the same place, Tuscaloosa, but “unstuck in place and time,” to paraphrase Vonnegut. He looked at me and said, “I’ve just come from the airport. Took up the Phantom at dawn. It was beautiful.” I knew Barry didn’t fly jets. And that there was no F-4 Phantom at the Tuscaloosa airport. But he displayed no sign of telling this as a story, as something he’d made up, imagined, for the sake of writing Ray. (This was the year that Richard Price came to town to write an article for Playboy about Bear Bryant. He wanted to meet Barry. Barry told him all his Vietnam stories – fighter pilot stories he’d gathered from his friend and former Navy pilot Quisenberry and from reading, since he’d never been in the service, himself. But when Barry was Ray, he told them as if they were his own, believed them to be his own, and Price – the street-smart New York guy – bought it all. Because it was more real for Barry that year than anything anyone else was looking at, driving around in, flying through, eating.). But I wasn’t writing this story. I wasn’t writing anything worth existence on the planet Earth when I was in the presence, or even the same town or country, as Barry Hannah. So I ate the green barbeque, and came out okay.
He told me that when he’d shot the holes through the floor of the MG to drain the rain from it, the next door old-lady neighbor’s miniature poodle was in the back yard and keeled over from fright and he’d defended himself by demonstrating that the poodle wasn’t hit. Shades of the obnoxious elder Wently’s schnauzer Albert in Ray, I always supposed.
We went out in the MG one night, just one time, sped down River Road, weaving around the slower traffic, flying, top down. My brother had died in a crash some five years earlier, and I asked Barry to slow down. He looked over, shouted over the MG’s engine and the wind, “Are you afraid to die?” I admitted I didn’t especially want it to happen in this way. He slowed down, disappointed. I wished I hadn’t feared for my sorry life, my ridiculous dreams and futile sense of responsibility. But I was more coward than outlaw. Geronimo let the recreant paleface live, and took him home.
It got bad enough for Barry at one point that you kind of dreaded his coming around. When he called up the house one night to see if we had any booze, that he was out and the stores were closed, I lied (I didn’t have any booze, but I knew Barry would come over and confiscate my better-off roommate’s Jack Daniel’s, and I’d have to answer for it and couldn’t afford to replace it) and said I was sorry but all we had was an old sticky bottle of sloe gin that the roommate had left over in his cabinet from ages ago, for cooking or something. There was a pause on the line, then Barry said, “Well, all right.” He came over, picked up the sloe gin, gave it a disgusted look, thanked us, and left. I felt kind of rotten about that. Like a traitor. I couldn’t figure out just what I was dealing with, anymore.
There was a hilarious story I got second-hand about a sophisticated colleague throwing a dinner party and Barry showing up, saying he couldn’t stay for dinner but he’d just have a little wine. He took one of the finer bottles she had out on the sideboard and left. There was outrage. You must understand, however, that this was a time when, at a different party, a poet on faculty hid beneath the hors d’oeuvres table on all fours like a dog, waited until a senior female professor walked by, and bit her on the leg.
Barry wasn’t making many friends around the English Department. A new chair was elected (she who was bitten by the poet, so happens) and decided to get rid of Barry one way or another, tenured or not. Was this vicarious general revenge? Who knows. There was an inquisition. All the graduate fiction students were called into her office (and possibly other writers, and undergraduates, I don’t recall) one-by-one for a “conference” which consisted of a few questions, the most pertinent two of which were, Has Barry ever come to workshop drunk? And, Has Barry ever come to workshop with a gun? Everyone had heard the story about the classroom gun, but allegedly it had happened in an undergraduate workshop so it was easy to claim ignorance about that. And it was easy to lie about him coming to workshop drunk, because we didn’t like the idea of administration muscle, the authorities, arbiters of decency and propriety, coming down on Barry, on all of us in effect, and telling us how to behave in our workshops. So we said no. But someone must have ratted him out. He got his notice and his teaching at Alabama was done by the end of that year, my second year in the program. I’m not sure they even let him teach out the year. He hung around a while, in that badass black leather motorcycle jacket phase (see the jacket photo for Captain Maximus and the cover of Long, Last, Happy) stating his own case of outrage, indignation, and betrayal to his replacements – the subs and then Allen and Dara Wier – at reading parties, in bars. But soon after, he left on his motorbike for Montana. He would write savagely about his Tuscaloosa years in “Ride, Fly, Penetrate, Loiter,” and always said something was poisonous to him in or about that town.
We were on the outs, by then, in any case, which was a hard thing, discouraging. I’d gone there with some hopes: for working with Hannah, for my own stories. Now I was working part-time in a funky local bookstore, helping out the proprietor, a forty-ish former hippy who’d come to town with a religion prof who’d been her teacher somewhere else, then left the prof and opened this store. It was a den of literary chaos, hardly room to shuffle between the tall overflowing shelves. My job was to fill out, on a little index card for every book that came in, the book’s title, ISBN, etc., snip a V into the card, and insert it into the book before shelving it. Barry took a fancy to this woman, with her wild red hair and her little decommissioned postal jeep, and got it into his head that because I was working with this woman so intimately (there was no other way, in that space), I was sleeping with her, too (I was not, and caught it from both ends; she called me “bourgeois”). Barry would come into the store and taunt me. “Written any good literature lately?” I hadn’t, and he knew it. I was stuck, already in another youthful, deadened funk. I was humiliated, angry, woebegone. Barry was right. I was washed-up, a wordless clerk, without the dignity of a Bartelby or the chops of even a mini-me version of someone like The Captain (his editor Gordon Lish had been calling himself Captain Fiction, and Barry responded by calling himself, in a kind of ironic acknowledgement of his troubles, Captain Asshole; soon after, he would publish Captain Maximus).
After Barry left Tuscaloosa, sometime around ’81, I wouldn’t see him again until 1995, when my first book was about to be published. I’d gone away and given up and done other things and then dragged myself back into it again, unable not to. Barry had become writer-in-residence at Ole Miss by then, was sober, with no apparent hard feelings toward me. I’d thought he’d hated me when we parted, but it wasn’t true, it was all drink. I’d never got over the regret that I hadn’t been able to figure out how to exist with Barry in the zone, or that I hadn’t the courage, or the fearless iconoclasm, or the smarts to hang with him at his wildest. I’m not sure Barry ever understood or accepted the existence of things like depression or despair in a writer. His view of the writer was more akin to the Greeks’ vision of their gods. But in ’95 I called him up and was relieved he welcomed a visit. He knew I’d never betrayed him. “You look the same, you haven’t changed!” he said, coming out the front door of the house on Eagle Road to greet me. We sat and drank coffee and talked for an hour. It wasn’t as if the old, bad times hadn’t existed. We just didn’t go there.
Some people from the old ‘Bama workshop, people Barry was hard on, never forgave him for his inscrutable ways in those days. This happens in MFA programs, even if you are not working with a mad genius of a wordsmith, a warrior visionary flying near-blind into the absence of a “vista.” People want you to make them a star, or at least make them better, but you can hardly ever do that. You can show them what they need to do, where or how they’re not doing it. You can encourage them when they’re working hard and taking risks and doing well. You can be tough and tell them they’re not delivering and will never do anything if they don’t give a lot more to it. Or you can go easy and find ways to suggest they discover this for themselves. Barry did all these but was more likely to encourage and criticize than go easy, because he had no use or patience for boring work, whether from someone with talent or without much of it, especially when he was so immersed in his own work or trying to get there. If you were willing and able to get into and stay into the ring with the man, if you realized it actually was a kind of fight, a fair fight but a fight, and not a beauty or popularity contest or an exercise in the application of balm to the ego, you were okay.
So when my first book came out there was catfish at Taylor Grocery with Barry and his wife, Susan, Richard and Lisa Howorth, and Larry Brown, may he and Susan and Barry all rest in infinite peace. I was in high spirits with that crowd.. Barry had given the book one of the best blurbs he’d ever written for anyone. Larry laughed at me for eating two large plates of catfish, clearly pleased and impressed. Sometime during the meal, Barry grinned and said, “Whatever happened to those stories you wrote in grad school? You used to write funny stories.” We all laughed (it was true, my stories had been funnier then). I felt like a part of my life that had been tossed into a dungeon years before had been set free. We were friends ever after. “Loyal friend,” he would say when I called, even when it had been too long since I’d written or called, “You’re a loyal friend.” Well, I tried to be. I’d like to think so.
The last time I saw Barry, he suggested we meet up at City Grocery for a couple of drinks. Since he’d been mostly on the wagon since ’89, I didn’t know what to expect. But it was near the end. A backslide now and then wasn’t going to change things. He ordered vodka gimlets, a couple, maybe three, and took a pain pill or two. He was smoking ultra-lights. His mood was good, but he was tired, and the drinks and pills took their toll. We left the Grocery and sat down on a bench outside for a few minutes, so Barry could collect himself. “I’m dying of three different diseases,” he said.
He was on his big Yamaha motorbike (he liked that word). I suggested I ride the Yamaha and he drive my old truck, but he declined, mounted the bike. He stalled, stopped traffic on the square for half a minute, got it going again, and I followed him around the square, down Lamar toward his house, the bike weaving a bit in the lane. I hoped he wouldn’t crash, or barring that I hoped at least that Susan wouldn’t be angry with me. But the same guide-wire pulling Barry through so many things that would have killed anyone else pulled him on home. Susan had retired for the evening, and later said she wasn’t angry, anyway.
The last time I talked to Barry, he called the house and said he wanted read at Wyoming, do some fishing. I worked it out, then heard he was on oxygen for emphysema, a detail he’d neglected to mention. He’d crashed the Yamaha, portable oxygen tank aboard, and come out hardly damaged, though the bike and tank were totaled. I really wanted to see Barry, to take him trout fishing the way he’d often said he wanted to come out and do, to see him marvel at the beauty of the mountains and clear little rivers here, the wildlife, the vistas. It felt to me as if it would be a culmination of some sort, that it would bring our friendship full circle, from the tentative and welcoming warmth of our first days, laced with imminent danger and inscrutability, through reunion and the washing away of some bitter residues, the solidification of restored friendship. But I had to tell him that Laramie sits at 7200 feet above sea level in the front range of the Rockies, hard on newcomers even with good lungs. He phoned back the next week. His doctor advised he’d have to use a wheelchair if he came out here. “I couldn’t do that,” Barry said. Too humiliating. I think he felt it would be absurd. And then he laughed, referring to the very decent honorarium we’d offered.
“Hell,” he said, “I only wanted the reading so I could buy a new motorbike, anyway.”
I’m reminded of a story Raad Cawthon told me, about an early Barry signing in the original location of Lemuria Bookstore. He was drinking vodka, in a foul mood, not being so nice to fans. Then his father came in. Barry stood up, walked over, gently took his father into a hug, and said quietly into his ear, “It’s my birthday, Daddy. Buy me something nice.”
People here were fine with the idea of buying something nice for Barry Hannah, in exchange for the pleasure of his company, his voice. I know we would have had a grand time, and didn’t care if there was an ulterior motive, because there always is, legit, and we all know how much Barry loved to ride. But it didn’t happen. That was summer, 2009. The following March, he was gone.
*A great (and relevant) story from Airships, of course. bw