SID SALTER: Eminent writer Barry Hannah 'saw victory and defeat'

By Sid Salter

What drew me to Barry Hannah’s writings were the dark, flawed and richly intense characters – characters like French Edward, Dr. Hubert “Baby” Levaster and Captain Bobby Smith, U.S. Army.
I met Bobby Smith in Hannah’s short story Midnight and I’m Not Famous Yet in the July 1975 edition of Esquire Magazine. Hannah’s erratic prose captured the soldier’s meltdown in Vietnam and the strange comfort he drew from a black-and-white action photo of a golfer named John Whitelaw back home bearing down on the ball with his driver.
At the end of the story, Smith is back home in Vicksburg and attends a golf tournament in which Whitelaw, the favorite and Smith’s ideal “of what a man should be” loses the match.
In a tight bit of prose, Hannah sums up his tale (and America’s “peace with honor” outcome in Vietnam as well) with these words:
“Fools! Fools! I thought. Love it! Love the loss as well as the gain. Go home and dig it. Nobody was killed. We saw victory and defeat, and they were both wonderful.”
Smith would join French Edward – the brain-damaged tennis pro – and Hubert “Baby” Levaster – the depraved physician who kept Edward on his game in another Hannah short story from the collection “Airships,” called “Return to Return,” in Hannah’s farce of a novel “The Tennis Handsome” – a tale that featured murder and a tennis match at gunpoint.
Barry Hannah deserves to be mentioned among the greats of Southern literature. Writer Larry McMurtry has called Hannah “the best fiction-writer to appear in the South since Flannery O’Connor.” I agree with that.
Hannah, who died Monday at his home in Oxford at the age of 67, was one of the most intense and driven people I’ve known. I met him through Willie Morris in the early 1980s and quite frankly didn’t like him then. He was a hard drinker, he was arrogant and he was emotionally flammable. Barry dressed in black most of the time in that era, drove a motorcycle and was despite a soaring intellect ready to throw down at the drop of a hat. We didn’t mix well in those days.
When I taught journalism at Ole Miss in the mid-1990s, we reconnected and laughed about some of our earlier misadventures. One could sense that teaching had become more important to him.
Years later, I would come to know a very different man. We corresponded for several years and the older Barry Hannah was a man who was enormously generous with his time and his gifts.
He battled cancer and fatigue. The excesses of his youth gave way to a certain resignation, but never to defeat or cowardice. Into his last years, Hannah was still a fighter for the people and things in which he believed.
As director of the Master of Fine Arts creative writing program at Ole Miss, Hannah carried the fire for young writers who needed encouragement and inspiration. His enthusiasm for good writing and his insatiable curiosity spread to his students as they sought to find their own voices and influences.
My daughter was one of those students and she loved him.
We’ll all cherish French Edward, “Baby” Levaster and Capt. Bobby Smith – and all of Barry’s creations.
“Go home and dig it.” Indeed.
Contact syndicated columnist Sid Salter, editor of the Clarion-Ledgere’s Perspective section, at (601) 961-7084 or e-mail ssalter@clarionledger.com.