Barry Hannah. Photo by Susan Lippman.
In a lecture last year at Bennington College, Barry Hannah offered advice to writing students that was simple and profound: “Be master of such as you have.” The critically acclaimed, award-winning writer from Mississippi is himself master of the hot moment, of linguistic reverb (his term), and of the enviable sentence. From Airships and Ray to Bats Out of Hell, his voice has been a corrective to so much generic-sounding fiction.
Hannah has always been brilliant at depicting people in retreat, not just from the awfulness of their souls, but from the sweetness of them. This time out, in the stories in High Lonesome, Hannah is Grand Marshall at a parade of human ugliness. His characters are “autoannointed third-raters,” or the folks who oppose them: “Beating back nature was the obsession of men in these suburbs, and failing that, arranging it like a combed orphan.” Yet there is a softer spirit present in certain of these stories, though less acute an observer—a reassessment from a new stage of life. “Something tired and battered and loud had just thrown in the towel,” is the thought of a man recently released from “the lifetime monster of lust,” and of drink.
Hannah has said he finds plots “confining”: his free-range excursions are a wry, wise play-by-play of old fools and new fools just hanging around hoping somebody don’t like it. Lowered expectations abound, nowhere more than in marriage, where the feeling of a man for his wife is “an embattled apathy each morning goaded into mere courtesy.” One fellow beats up another “in a dutiful way, just socking him as if stamping the price on groceries.”
Yet these stories are not gloomy thanks to Hannah’s incomparable humor—as wicked as ever, those glorious sentences are teased out of the language the rest of us use, and the underpinning of Christian acceptance for our muted efforts.
High Lonesome was just recently published by Atlantic Monthly Press.