I knew two Barry Hannahs.
One was drunk, rowdy, tormented and indecent. The other was sober, gentle, charming and generous.
Both were spectacular.
On August 11, 1986, Barry responded to an editorial in my newspaper. The letter started —
Dear Neil White,
The last letter about Judge Ball you took up so solemnly and full of holiness,
you’d have thought they’d shot your brother. You have lost your objectivity
completely, and the whole thing about Judge Ball and the Court Report has
passed by you, in the name of cronyism.
This was my introduction to Barry Hannah.
Our second encounter was a few months later at Syd & Harry’s in Oxford. Barry was drunk and loud, elbows on the copper bar. It was still daylight outside. I took a seat on the other side of Barry and, proudly, told the bartender I was meeting Willie Morris for a drink. Barry looked over at me and flashed that trademark mischievous smile. Then, he dismantled our mutual friend. Barry laughed about Willie’s chronic dandruff. Greasy hair, too. He went on about Willie’s weight and hygiene. Then Barry put his index finger against his perfectly straight, white incisor and added, “Willie’s missing teeth.”
Barry put his chin in the air, looked at himself in the mirror behind the bar and said, “I get a lot more p***y than Willie.”
He reveled in the attack. He also loved using words that made your back straighten (see Constant Pain in Tuscaloosa).
About a year after that brush with Barry, he arrived at my newspaper office on a motorcycle, waving a loaded gun. A drunken friend was along for the ride. They told me stories about combat and flying and guns. His friend suggested I do a feature on their adventures.
I wasn’t even tempted. I liked nothing about Barry Hannah.
Those were my three encounters with the man in the 1980s.
Six years later, after two business failures and a short stint in federal prison, I moved back to Oxford. One of the first things I heard from my ex-wife was that Barry Hannah and his poker buddies were having a good laugh over me moving back to their town.
I ran into Barry on the square one afternoon in the spring of 1995. He didn’t recognize me at first (I had lost 40 pounds while in prison).
“God,” he said, “where can I sign up for this kind of pain.” Then, he asked me if I would like to play tennis. We exchanged numbers and Barry started to call.
During 1995 and 1996 we played a couple of times a week. Always in the morning. Always at Avent Park. Always at 10 am. The courts were generally open and Barry generally won our matches. I didn’t care. I liked this gentle man—now quite sober—who I once despised. I loved his voice, its tempo, that great laugh.
Barry was unassuming. He told me that only one of his books had ever covered the advance his publishers had paid him. He added he was grateful that they chose to continue subsidizing his work.
“Have you ever thought about writing a plot-heavy, Grisham-esque novel?” I asked.
“I tried,” he said, “but I can’t do it. I get too interested in the characters.”
One morning Barry handed me an advance reader copy of a book he said he was going to endorse.
“I hate to give blurbs,” he said. “So few deserve it. But this one is fresh and gritty. Terrific!” he said, as he handed me the book. “You should read it.”
It was an advance copy of Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Club.
It was about this time that I started reading Barry’s work. Airships, Ray, Bats Out of Hell. I asked if he’d mind if I enrolled in his creative writing class. He thought it was a great idea.
Barry talked about writing like no one I’d ever encountered. And I was inspired. His definition of a short story was simple. “A story has beginning, middle and end,” then he paused and added, “and thrill me.”
Barry assigned the collections of Hemingway, O’Connor, Joyce and Hannah. He referred to his own work in the third person. “Hannah’s Airships,” he said. “It’s been so long, it’s as if a different person wrote it.”
A few weeks into the class, I turned in an essay mascarading as a short story. It was called “The First Day” — about the day I entered the prison/leprosarium in Carville, Louisiana. Barry praised the work. He said he’d bet his reputation as a writer that the piece would find a home.
I was part embarrassed and part giddy. Barry was a different person. The man who had berated Willie and written me scathing letters didn’t seem to exist.
Barry got sick and we stopped playing tennis.
Months turned into years and I had no book, no short stories, no published essays. Barry had put his stamp of approval on nearly a dozen other up-and-coming writers who quickly penned novels and story collections. He was generous when it came to talented new writers. Never envious. He cared more about discovering exciting new words on the page than money or fame. He probably gave too much.
I rarely saw Barry once the illnesses set in. When I did run into him, I hoped he wouldn’t bring up the subject of writing.
In 2007—twelve years after taking Barry’s class—I was offered a contract to publish a memoir. At the nudging of my agent, I wrote Barry and asked if he would be willing to read the manuscript for a potential endorsement.
I heard nothing back.
Surely, I thought, the letter must have been lost. Barry had been such a fan of the story, I was certain he would want to help. I wrote another letter, reiterating my request.
This time he responded. In a handwritten letter, Barry scolded me for asking such a question. It was the publisher’s job, he said, not the writer’s. He went on to berate those fraudsters who put marketing and promotion in front of good writing. Barry ended the letter with, “Neil, it strains a friendship.”
As you read this collection of essays about Barry Hannah, you will notice a common theme. No matter whether the piece was written by Barry’s student or boss or colleague or fishing buddy, no matter if the contributor knew him drunk or sober or newly converted or all three, no matter if they met him in his 30s or 40s or 50s or even 60s, one thing was clear. Everyone wanted to be around Barry.
He was grand on the page, but Barry was even more daring in person.
Jim Dees put it best in the opening line of his essay, Captain to the Max — “He was, simply, the coolest.”
In June of 2009, I did something I probably should not have done. I hand delivered a copy of In the Sanctuary of Outcasts to Barry’s house. I left it in his mailbox on Eagle Springs Road. The book was already out. Too late for endorsements. I included a note reminding Barry of all he had taught me. Even if we weren’t friends anymore, I wanted him to know that he played a huge role in the way I put words on a page. The story wouldn’t be what it was had Barry not been my teacher.
The following week, Barry arrived at my launch party, oxygen tank in tow, and bummed cigarettes from my brother-in-law Max.
I would say that I had no ulterior motives in leaving the book for Barry, but that wasn’t true. I wanted him to read it. I wanted him to know that I worked for more than a decade on the story. I didn’t want him to be disappointed anymore.
Later, I saw Barry looking through a table of discounted hardbacks at Off Square Books.
“I don’t read fiction anymore,” Barry said. “Mostly history.”
As he looked down at the bin of used books, he said, “You know, there’s something in your story for everyone — artists, writers, businesspeople.” Barry said he liked the book — and he hoped others would recognize its value.
That was the last time we talked.
I was flying on an airplane when I heard about Barry’s death. I was en route to a conference to honor his life’s work.
There may have been two Barrys, but during the course of our friendship there were two of me, as well: there was the guy who wanted to be important and needed praise and sought out accolades. And there was the guy who was labeled ex-con, who was beaten down and humbled, if only temporarily, and who wanted to do his best to tell a story.
Barry liked the second fellow.
Neil White is the author of the bestselling memoir, In the Sanctuary of Outcasts (HarperCollins, 2009). The Southeastern Library Association named him the Outstanding Author of the Year in 2010. White was one of three finalists in the 2010 Barnes & Noble "Discover Great New Writers" award. He serves as Creative Director and Publisher at The Nautilus Publishing Company.