Goodbye Epiphany, Hello Ecstasy

How Barry Hannah changed the American short story forever.

The first praise of Barry Hannah’s work you’re likely to hear will rest on the gushing pleasures, the verve and song, of his sentences. His high-wire prose has earned him what’s been called a cult following—a cult whose members trade Hannah’s bon mots with a fanboy’s glee and hoarding devotion. A short list of the devotees includes the most celebrated writers of three generations, among them Alfred Kazin, John Cheever, William Styron, Philip Roth, John Updike, Cynthia Ozick, Richard Ford, Jim Shepard, Amy Hempel, Sam Lipsyte, and Wells Tower, who has called him “the most vital, thrilling stylist in America.”

The emphasis on Hannah’s language is wholly deserved, long overdue, and in full throat now with the publication of his posthumous collection of stories, Long, Last, Happy. (Hannah died of a heart attack on March 1 of this year.) New readers may want to proceed with a pencil in hand. Hannah’s Martian contortions of language, his stupefying mixes of the high and low, wow and startle at a clip of several sentences per page. On getting religion: “I decided I was going to quit fucking around and be a Christian.” On the landscape of the South: “In Mississippi, it is difficult to achieve a vista.” He can summarize a life in a sentence: “One [man], a pudgy solipsist from Memphis, had no other point to his life except the fact that he had quit cigarettes.” Or convey, with a line, years of war-stunned experience: “Nothing a body does disgusts me,” a Confederate cavalryman thinks, witnessing a man piss himself. Most rare, perhaps, is the bald, singing prayer of his prose: “I’m dreaming of a world where men and women have stopped the war and where we stroll as naked excellent couples under the eyes of the sweet Lord again.”

Yet praising Hannah exclusively as a stylist undersells the importance of his work and the influence that it has stamped on American fiction. Hannah represented not just an inimitable voice. He was a philosopher of exuberance who dislodged the short story from its cozy perch and hurled it into new territory.

It is difficult to know why one writer succeeds commercially where another does not, and yet part of what prevented Hannah from “selling 100,000 copies and smoking opium in the Casbah,” as he joked, was his genetic attraction to the form of the short story, the perennial bridesmaid of American literature. Though Hannah had proved his mettle in the novel form with his bildungsroman Geronimo Rex (1972) and the tour de force Ray(1980), he is most celebrated for his short-story masterpieces, many of which are gathered in Long, Last, Happy, along with four new and one previously unpublished story.

Throughout his career, Hannah exploited the short story’s natural compression. Like his famed editor, Gordon Lish, who exhorted students to commit to the page only the most important stories they knew, Hannah adored brevity and the narrative triage it demands. If you have only 10 pages to tell your life story, after all, you better start with the time you shot Jeb Stuart in the face as the Confederate narrator does in “Dragged Fighting From His Tomb.” Or the time you slept with a girl in a cemetery as two men beat each other to death, as is the case in “Coming Close to Donna.”(A perusal of Long, Last, Happy’s table of contents hasHannah rivaling Bob Dylan for titular wit and bravado.)

Even Hannah’s longer narratives gallop under an air of mortal urgency: that is, urgent perception and feeling. In the great, dense, rich stories from Bats Out Of Hell(1993), which can clock in at 30 or 40 pages, he packs as much life as possible into each long paragraph. Hannah never settles for setting the scene, as in this description of a rock show in “Hey, Have You Got a Cig, the Time, the News, My Face?”: “The place was a converted warehouse rank with college vomit, beer in Astroturf, a disinfectant thrown contemptuously over it. The spirit of everywhere: spend your money, thanks, fuck you.”

This kind of exuberance might well grate, and yet Hannah avoids manic overload often through sheer concision. Many of the stories in Long, Last, Happy last no longer than seven pages. A couple—”Mother Mouth” and “Even Greenland”—come in under three. Most important, Hannah’s voice is so wonder-struck and earnestly strange that it never reads as desperate to please. Who else would describe Florida as “assholing” or refer to Jesus Christ as a “hell of a sweet genius guy”? These gobsmacked juxtapositions of language betray a perceptive apparatus in constant, boyish awe before the world. The intensity of Hannah’s prose comes off not like the desperation of the carnival barker (“and now for our next act!”) but a faithful rendering of ecstatic perception. Reading him, one encounters a man exponentially more alive than most.

Take, for instance, “Love Too Long,” originally published in Airships(1978) and included in Long, Last, Happy. All of six pages, it takes the form of a monologue delivered by an unnamed narrator on the wincing subject of his marriage, featuring such all-time-classic oaths of desire as, “I want to rip her arm off. I want to sleep in her uterus with my foot hanging out.” Three vivid anecdotes unfold, all the while the man’s wife, taking a piloting lesson, flies overhead. From the beginning, the man knows he will not leave his wife and that she will not leave him, or, perhaps, that they will continue to leave each other and reconcile ad infinitum. On the second page of the story, he states, “I am her always and she is my always and that’s the whole problem.” To say this story is about love is like saying Otis Redding’s “These Arms of Mine” is about longing. Rather, it is a song of love, six pages long.

Just as we listen to singers like Redding or Nina Simone whose voices seem proof that they feelmore than we do, we turn to Hannah’s prose to feel human experience in its intensities and depths. More traditional, even epic, narratives crop up throughout Long, Last, Happy, such as masterworks like “Testimony of Pilot” and “Hey, Have You Got a Cig?” In these stories, too, Hannah consistently presents characters who long for ecstatic release and exuberant experience, seeking the groveling lows and roman-candle highs of life.

Flight, it’s not surprising, is one of Hannah’s eternal tropes. Pilots flit in and out of the stories collected in Long, Last, Happy. In “Testimony of Pilot,” the character Quadberry flies an F-8 in Vietnam, returning to proclaim, “I am a dragon. America the beautiful like you will never know.” “Even Greenland,” a four-page formal gem from Captain Maximus(1985), tells of two pilots having to bail. Hannah’s great literary move is this: Flight in these stories is not a means to or a metaphor for some psychological tension or resolution; it is an end unto itself.

This, indeed, is Hannah’s lasting contribution to the story form. In Airships first and later in Captain Maximus and Bats Out of Hell, Hannah blasted the form out of the Joycean model of epiphany—whereby a short story seeks to impart to its characters, or readers, a hard-earned kernel of revelation—toward a more ecstatic model of release: The men and women in Hannah’s fiction, often at great cost, stumble upon—or crowbar their way into—moments of escape, explosion, literal flight, even transcendence.

It’s an American innovation that has fundamentally changed the form. Without it, works like Denis Johnson’s Jesus’ Son, or the stories of Amy Hempel and Rick Bass, would not exist in the ways they do now. It really is what often brings Hannah’s work closer to the realm of music than literature. Rarely do we listen to a song to understand a feeling. We do so to experienceit, to fly out into the song. You don’t read Hannah, you sing along.

In this sense, Long, Last, Happy’s third adjective proves a fitting salute, for Hannah remains one of the few writers who do not shrink from joy as a subject worthy of literature. So many of his sentences embrace exclamation. “Sabers, gentlemen, sabers!” are the famous last words of Ray, when the eponymous narrator speeds, in his fantasy life, to certain death as a Confederate soldier. That this ecstatic moment, like many of Hannah’s, is fleeting, costly, and swallowed by imminent disaster does not in the slightest ironize it. The moment is joy and it is glory and it is meant to be.

“It’s the job of the writer to entertain but entertain deeply,” Hannah told his students, of whom I was lucky to be one. Or, as he wrote elsewhere: “I look for writing to bring back joy. And I intend to join in the hunt for all the killers of joy in Our World.” Hannah gives a reader just that: escapism in the deepest, most Christian sense of the word. In doing so, he captures, as well as any of his contemporaries, all the earthly woe we are so desperate to leave behind.

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