Barry Hannah: Eclectic writer whose work penetrated the heart of the American psyche

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The Independent Online

I live in so many centuries. Everybody is still alive," remarks the narrator of Ray (1980), one of eight novels by Barry Hannah, who himself showed a similar spirit, perhaps most notably in the short stories from which some of those novels sprang.

He was the quintessence of that Southern penchant for wild lives and outlandish metaphor. His sharp eye could make anything surreal. To open his work at random is almost immediately to be halted by such observations of a ramshackle America as "the car seems to have plunged up from the ravine" and "their yard looks better, maybe from the fact that their animals have multiplied and the stratum of dung over the grass is near solid".

Omnivorous in his tastes, with a relish of Jimi Hendix, whose agility he thought "Mozart amplified", Hannah wrote quickly, and lived fast until circumstances of one sort or another brought pauses. He was born in 1942 in Clinton, near Jackson Mississippi, where his father William was an insurance salesman. As Hannah recalled in an essay, his father "was a bumbler, an infant at a number of tasks, even though he was a stellar salesman. He had no grace, though he was nicely dressed and handsome, black hair straight back, with always a good car and a far traveler in it around the United States, Mexico and Canada.

"His real profession was a lifetime courting in awe of the North American Continent – its people, its birds, animals, and fish. I've never met such a humble pilgrim of his own country as my father, who had the reverence of a Whitman and a Sandburg together without having read either of the gentlemen. But a father's humility did not cut much ice with this son, although I enjoyed all the trips with him and mother".

From an early age, Hannah intuited the power that women can wield, their ability to organise or, at least, be "right out there like they know what they're doing"; he never failed to be haunted by American landscapes, and he relished what he called "enormous weather".

Through school and Mississippi College, from which he graduated in 1964, there came that obsessional spirit upon which his writing would depend. He also took a course in creative writing which, mercifully, did not imbue an etiolated style; on the contrary, he was to hang loose, never more so than in his first novel, Geronimo Rex (1972). A bildungsroman, it freewheels through long paragraphs ("the college amounted to an exploded quad of three-story buildings"), with a sojurn in early-Sixties Manhattan, with scenes at the Gaslight café and aspersions upon Maynard Ferguson's trumpet style (Hannah himself had learnt the instrument as a child).

It was, however, in his short stories, encouraged by Gordon Lish at Esquire that Hannah found his true direction. The first of these were collected as Airships (1978), a multifarious volume which shows his preoccupation with the Civil War, which he renders as a curiously contemporary event, as well as a novel-in-miniature about college life and another, Return to Return, from which such sentences as "he stroked Carine's thigh, rather enjoying her distaste" yielded an entire novel, The Tennis Handsome (1983).

In "Water Liars", the narrator asserts, "when I am run down and flocked around by the world, I go down to Farte Cove off the Yazoo River and take my beer to the end of the pier where the old liars are still snapping and wheezing at one another".

Hannah's own prose makes one want to read it aloud to anybody who will listen – and even if they won't they soon do. Although he was to teach in various places, he settled in Oxford, Mississippi, unfazed by Faulkner's ghost – although through two marriages, the first of which brought three children to whom he was devoted, drink dogged him, but he gave it up in the early Nineties after marriage to Sarah Varas.

His work had continued to appear, including Power and Light (1983), a novella developed from a screenplay idea supplied by Robert Altman during a brief foray into Hollywood. As eclectic as the director, Hannah was never to hit the big time, and at the century's turn survived more than a brush with cancer, but leaves an array of work whose strengths will become all the more apparent.

These range from the substantial volume of Bats Out of Hell (1993) to the the linked, Altmanesque fragments of the tin-roofed café of the elegiacally acerbic Hey Jack (1987): "the dentist was not used to being replied to. A dentist may go through life without any true conversation at all". Makes sense when you think about it; takes a Barry Hannah to point it out. He is survived by his wife and children.

Barry Hannah, writer: born Clinton, Mississippi 23 April 1942; married; died 1 March 2010.