Barry Hannah and I were not close. He was kind to me, and generous, but I blatantly worshipped him, and he hated that. I’d moved to Oxford in 2003, like several other dreamers, as soon as we learned Barry was heading up the new MFA program there. I pictured the two of us riding Harleys together, shooting Jack Daniels in foggy graveyards, and talking about my stories. It would be like jamming with Keith Richards.
Instead, the first discussion we had about my work was brief. It was a cold day in February, and we’d barely gotten out of our jackets, the other students and I, when Barry said, “Ok, let’s start with this story by Walsh.”
He held the manuscript up before the class. It was a short four-pager I’d written for the express purpose of impressing him. I thought I’d done well and was proud. My plot about an oversexed wife was similar to his Airships story “Love Too Long”, so I thought he might like it. The stylistic voice I’d managed to pull off was also similar to his story “Love Too Long,” which I thought was a good move. And, finally, the trumpet blast proclamation of an ending was a direct nod to his classic story . So, I was ready for praise.
“Ok,” Barry told the class. “There’s two things about this story. The first,” he said, “is that it’s one-dimensional.” He paused and thought for a moment. “The second is that it’s uninteresting.”
I sat there stunned.
“All right,” he said. “That’s enough about that one. Let’s move on.”
And we did.
I spent the next week drunk, acting like I’d been misunderstood or wronged in some huge way. I took the criticism extremely personally, like all idiots do, and figured that the real problem was that Barry just didn’t know me well enough. He didn’t understand that I’d moved there for him, that I’d left the love of my life back in Knoxville just so I could be there. I mean, I was dedicated. So, every chance I got, I tried to befriend Barry; at Square Books, outside of class, or at the City Grocery Bar where he drank Cokes in those years. I secured the seat nearest him at every possible occasion and peppered him with moronic questions: What stories out of Airships did you write in grad school? What was it like working with Gordon Lish? Did you know that “Love Too Long” basically changed my life? Did you know that I, like, really like it? I swamped him with this type of garbage until one day on the City Grocery balcony, right in the middle of all my new friends, Barry interrupted me.
“God damn it,” he said. “You need to stop talking.”
So I did. I shut up for a while. This began my education.
I started actually listening to Barry and, like every other person he spoke to, I quickly learned myriad lessons. For one, I got the sense that part of our problem was that Barry didn’t know what to make of the fact that I was from Louisiana but not a Cajun. It was boring to him, and he was unimpressed. Even when we talked about things unrelated to writing, like SEC football or bass fishing, he seemed skeptical of my take on these matters. This was important. Where I was from was important to him. Where people are from is important. It sets up conflict and delivers ancient baggage before the plot even starts. Don’t forget where you were born, what your heritage is. Put it on the page. Barry taught me this.
The other advice he gave was less obvious.
In class, Barry spoke almost exclusively in universal “truths.” The problem was these truths were cryptic. My classmates and I jotted down nearly everything he said in workshop and later spent our bar hours trying to decipher them. I’d find phrases in my notebook like “Must Have a Silver Bullet”…“Win Battle With Loneliness”…“Points on the board is like Poetry to Millionaire Coaches” and we’d wonder what to make of it. Most famously, to my friends and I, Barry had also said: “There are only two ways to end a story: with a Ghost…or a Chain Gang Massacre.”
This one stuck with us. When we pressed him about this advice in class, asking him to explain it, he said simply, “Well, my buddy Ray Carver preferred the Ghost.” Then, grinning like an imp, “Me; I prefer the Chain Gang Massacre.”
In this way I learned about endings, his and my own, Faulkner’s and Chekhov’s, every student story I have read from that point on. What is waiting for this character, I still ask myself; a Ghost, or Chain Gang Massacre? A bang or a whimper? Action or suggestion? Life or Death?
Not coincidentally, the more I listened to him the more our relationship improved. He no longer blatantly grimaced when he saw me approaching although he was grimacing more, in those days, due to illness. He was always in and out of hospitals, always late arriving places. He had heartbreaking excuses for his tardiness and because of these I learned words from him that I’d never heard before like Neuropathy, which Barry described as “fire”. He often had band aids in random places, barely visible beneath his sleeves. Days were hard for him. Still, in all the times he was ill, his teaching never stopped.
One day, before a workshop in my second year there, he sat outside of Bondurant Hall with a lit cigarette in one hand and an asthma inhaler in the other. He alternated puffs without irony. He waved me over.
“That Louisiana story you wrote for today,” he said. “There’s some fertile ground there that is not Cajun. You may have stumbled upon material.”
It was the first compliment I’d gotten from him, yet I had no idea what to make of it.
“Thanks, Barry,” I said. “I worked hard on it.”
“That’s the point, my lad,” he said, and handed me the manuscript. My pride was cut short when I saw that it was covered in ink, not something Barry did very often. He stubbed out his cigarette as I flipped the pages and saw that he’d circled every appearance of the phrase “there was” in my story.
“Get rid of those awful constructions,” he told me. “Take out every single one of them.”
As a young writer I had no idea why these needed to be cut, nor did he explain it to me in any sort of technical way. Instead, when I asked him why, he simply said, “Because it’s weak. And it’s obvious.”
We then walked into class together where Barry proceeded to make a public example of my terrible sentences. It became the course subject for the day. Still, I don’t believe I’ve begun a sentence with “there was” ever again, and I thank him for that.
Shortly after this, Barry left Ole Miss for a year to teach as a Visiting Writer at Texas State and, in his absence, my writing immediately improved. This is not so strange. I had my notebooks to guide me, the butchered manuscript pages to haunt me and, most importantly, I didn’t have him around to try to impress anymore. In this way, the stuff I wrote finally became my own. By the time he returned to Ole Miss, I’d published a handful of stories. He replied to this news with a smile and said, “Well, it’s about time.”
When Barry tossed you a bone like this, it was enough to live on.
His compliments felt earned and sincere, especially when they came outside of the classroom as he’d begun a strange habit of lavishing praise on bad stories in workshop and skewering what most of the class thought was pretty good. It was in this way that the new flock of students showing up at Ole Miss thought Barry might be losing his touch. They were all pretty sure of their genius, like I was upon first arriving there, and figured Barry was now a thinker past his prime.
This was obviously not true.
Barry Hannah was simply a man who spoke like he wrote, a man that required constant de-coding. The better you got at it, however, the more impressive he became, rather than the more familiar. This was a strange paradox. It meant that, for me at least, the better I knew Barry, the more nervous I felt around him.
To put it in terms of his work, I worshipped “Love Too Long” and “Coming Close to Donna” as a young writer because they were simple, because they were loud and nasty. The more I read him, though, the less powerful they became in terms of what he was accomplishing a few pages over in stories like “Testimony of Pilot”, or what he was working through when he spewed out “Ride Westerly for Pusalina”. And it all paled, of course, in comparison with the flat-out miracle that is Ray. I began to feel overwhelmed when I saw him at the bookstore, in the hallways at school. I found less and less to say.
A better example:
One summer I attended the Sewanee Writer’s Conference where Barry was scheduled to read. I spent that week bragging to my fellow scholars that, yes, Barry was my teacher, yes, he was my friend and my neighbor. Barry arrived on the Sewanee campus with a slew of dogs in his old Jeep Cherokee and I tried my best to hover in his vicinity so that I could be seen with him. Then, without getting the chance to say hello, I took my seat in the audience.
For the next hour, I didn’t know where I was. Barry stood at the podium, said thanks, and then read his story “Uncle High Lonesome.” He blew the fucking doors off the place. I’d never seen anything like it. For an entire hour, nobody moved, nobody spoke. It was, without hyperbole, the best story I had ever heard, and I’d read it many times before. The next thing I knew I was standing in a crowd of a hundred other writers, giving the most raucous ovation I’ve ever witnessed at a reading. It was like seeing Hendrix at Woodstock,and we knew it. My skull was kicked in. My brain was on the back wall. And still, to this day, it is the only time I’ve felt like I was witnessing a Literary Event in the way that history talks about such things.
Minutes later, as I was standing outside in the parking lot, still unable to speak to humans, I heard Barry say, “Hey, my man, you need a ride somewhere?”
He had his hand out of the car window. He had his shades on. I did need a ride.
“No thank you,” I said. “I’m fine.” Then I watched him drive away, dogs circling in the back of his truck.
I was in too much awe to be near him.
All told, this was the day I first understood that Barry Hannah was not normal. Many people had laid claim to this fact due to his outrageous past, due to his narrative bravado, due even to his looks, but I knew then that it was deeper than that. Barry Hannah was a transformative talent, a comet screaming by for select generations to witness.
As such, I began to pay deference to the man and let him be. I stopped kissing his ass and asking him questions. I stopped trying to impress him. When I moved away from Oxford, I wrote him brief letters, first to thank him for all his help during my time there, second to tell him about the birth of my daughter, and third to tell him that my story collection had been accepted for publication. He always wrote back (“Like gentleman do,” he once said) and deciphering his handwriting on the small stationary he used was an enormous pleasure. In his last letter, he spoke of a “sick year” that he was on the mend from and offered to blurb my book.
The final conversation I had with him was on the telephone the day these blurbs were due. Barry had called me at my office to get my publisher’s phone number because, he said, he still “didn’t do e-mail.” I told him again that he didn’t need to feel obligated if this was a bother, if he didn’t feel up to it, and he said, “Doing this kind of work, my lad, is a pleasure.”
We then spoke earnestly of football and fatherhood and he mentioned that both he and his wife Susan had been “bad sick” and were just now getting back on their feet. He said they’d be fine, and I believed him. The man had done it so many times.
This was February 11th, 2010. He died on March 1st.
The shock of his death had me on the phone all night with friends from Ole Miss, people I knew he’d taught at Texas State, and people who were in that same room with me when he read at Sewanee. We all had a similar reaction, which was a sort of strange mystification at how we could be surprised by the death of someone who’d been dying for years.
It strikes me now that his personal ending was so much like they say all great endings should be, both surprising and inevitable. More than this, though, I realize that he ultimately fulfilled even his own amazing definition of endings.
Barry Hannah was always a Ghost, a presence more than mortal, someone who remained out of place and untouchable. And, despite this, he left a tangible mark. The American canon may still read Faulkner and O’Connor and Carver and Ford but, for any decent scholar, there will forever be some squiggly marks obscuring the late 20th century of this timeline. There will be a body of work inimitable, unclassifiable, almost unimaginable, presided over by a generous man with a grin, a kind soul with a dark side, happy to provide us with one permanent spectacle, one great literary disaster, like one fucking glorious Chain Gang Massacre.
All we can do now is stare and be thankful.
M.O. Walsh is a fiction writer born and raised in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. His first book, the story collection The Prospect of Magic, was a winner of the Tartt's First Fiction Award. His stories and essays have appeared in publications such as The New York Times, Oxford American, American Short Fiction, Epoch, and Greensboro Review and have been anthologized in Best New American Voices, Best of the Net and Bar Stories. He is a graduate of the Ole Miss MFA program and currently teaches in the Creative Writing Workshop at The University of New Orleans.