Smell This Diction: Barry Hannah’s Stories Return With a Vengeance

“Explosion bears repeating.” So says Rangoon Green, Third Place Trophy Holder in the National Storytellers Tell-Off, arsonist pawnbroker and the narrator of the final story in Long, Last, Happy, a posthumous collection of new and selected stories by Barry Hannah. Rangoon’s motto is at once an admission of pathology and a fitting encomium to his creator, one of the great prose pyrotechnicians of the last half-century.

When a heart attack killed Hannah in March, he left behind a manuscript he’d been wrestling with for nearly a decade. The book began life as a novel and changed titles at least twice, but after much frustration Hannah decided to break it into a cycle of linked short stories. Now, just seven months after his death, Long, Last, Happy includes these four new stories along with a selection drawn from his previous story collections.

It was the energy of Hannah’s prose that caught everyone’s attention early on, first in Geronimo Rex, the 1972 novel that brought him within licking distance of a National Book Award, and later in Airships, the 1978 story collection that fixed his star in the literary firmament. Hannah’s style blistered everything it touched, blinding the night like a shot of white phosphorous. For a decade or more he was America’s only answer to the miracle of Martin Amis.

Hannah was particularly practiced in the vocabulary of sex. I doubt there’s a language on earth that suffers a poverty of means to describe mating, but in his early fiction especially, Hannah seemed determined to multiply the available English stock. His characters were never content to fuck or make love: they had to be blasting, bucking, hunching, making cadence, framming around. “Smell this diction,” Rangoon Green tells us, as if we had a choice.

Coupled with Hannah’s lexical exuberance was a genius for grotesquerie and comic low drama. In “Dragged Fighting from His Tomb,” a traitorous Civil War veteran uses his federal pension to hire a woman “who breastfeeds me and lets me moil over her body.” “Scandale d’Estime,” from 1993’s Bats Out of Hell, gives us an opiated Quebecoise whose elderly lover forces her to spin a stationary bike clothed only in a Klan robe. In “Sick Soldier at Your Door,” one of the new stories, an airman high on Dexedrin and Percodan manages somehow to shoot himself out of the sky.

Only dopes who dislike country music as a matter of principle will avoid Hannah because he writes about the South, but it’s fair to note that his major characters rarely stray beyond the plat of his demography and sensibility. For all their japes, the narrators and protagonists of Long, Last, Happy often read like versions of their author. Mostly men and mostly from Mississippi, they share Hannah’s fondness for motorcycles, fishing and horns. They follow him into English departments and track his harrowing path through the hell of alcoholism. Women attract and oppress them; gay men bemuse them; African-Americans remain on the peripheries. In general, this narrow perspective proved more generative than constricting, though it did mark a limit.

Throughout his career Hannah was buffeted by the same critical headwinds that await any American writer who dares more than three metaphors a page. Reviewing for The Times, Anatole Broyard diagnosed Airships as “part of a current syndrome that mistakes energy for significance,” and accused Hannah of wasting his talent on “the literary equivalent of a health food craze.” Times critic Christopher Lehmann-Haupt knocked Hannah’s 1986 collection Captain Maximus as “strained” and “self-conscious,” though he allowed that it was somewhat better than the novels Ray (1980) and The Tennis Handsome (1983), which had “exhausted themselves in their efforts to stun us with their apocalyptic despair.”


LATE IN LIFE, Hannah would lament that he hadn’t found the readership he’d hoped for, but his audience of admirers was always broader and more visible than he let on. Not just younger writers like Sam Lipsyte, Fiona Maazel and Wells Tower but also Robert Altman, Stephen Malkmus and Truman Capote counted themselves fans. A number of critics have picked out Hannah as a patriarch of the Silver Age of maximalist fiction whose tail end we’re still enjoying.

But how reliably the critical batons are handed down the line. Sixteen years after Mr. Lehmann-Haupt’s review, Richard Bernstein would again hit Hannah with the “straining” rap in The Times. In a famous review of Zadie Smith’s White Teeth, James Wood would complain about the “perpetual-motion machines” of Hannah’s maximalist successors in much the same way that Broyard blanched at the “centrifugal impulse” that propelled Airships.

What Hannah’s critics usually missed was how bound up his effort and exhaustion were with the manic inventiveness of his prose and the desperate braggadocio of his characters. Straining was the point, for Hannah had a premodern, even anti-modernist conviction that the mysteries of existence yield their secrets only in extremis. “Too many books will deny their slaves the race to die in battle with the shout of victory in their ears.” That’s the speed-freak airman again, and the implication is plain: His own author would never be so cruel.

In defiance of all etymology, Hannah was out to prove that a well-revved desperation could beat back despair, or at least outrun it until death claimed its due. Not for him the quiet epiphany or coolly drawn vivisection of society. He ran his stories hot, flooding them with blood, alcohol and gasoline. “My head’s burning off and I got a heart about to bust out of my ribs,” says the narrator of “Love Too Long,” speaking for just about all of his fictional brethren.

Consider “Even Greenland,” from Captain Maximus, one of Hannah’s best stories. Two fighter pilots are falling out of the sky in a flaming F-14 and arguing about who will get the best last words. The one who dies wins, much to the dismay of the survivor. The story is both a cheeky self-parody and a frank statement of Hannah’s artistic modus operandi: He wants us to laugh at the ridiculous melodrama, but he also wants to convince us that it has a purpose, that it’s not his fault ridiculous melodrama is where the hard truths get made.

As a book, Long, Last, Happy is an odd bird, and somewhat imbalanced. Hannah’s death left it too light on the new and too heavy on the selected. The four new stories that give the collection its reason for being are each vivid and lively, and none of them show any signs of falling off. In aggregate, however, they drop so many hints about the novel Hannah didn’t write that it becomes hard to think of them as anything but incomplete.

The 27 stories from Hannah’s previous collections constitute a thorough sampling, but they comprise a bulk too big for casual reading. I can’t imagine recommending Long, Last, Happy in place of Airships or Ray to a Hannah rookie, and I expect deep fans who don’t own everything will hold out for a proper collection. (Hello, Library of America?)

Still, we can complain only so much. Any opportunity to push Hannah into the hands of the unsuspecting is one worth leaping after. Some explosions bear repeating.

Mr. Baird is the former editor of Chicago Review. Smell This Diction: Barry Hannah’s Stories Return With a Vengeance