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

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.

News
peopleFrankie Boyle responds to referendum result in characteristically offensive style
Sport
Harry Redknapp. Mark Hughes and Ryan Shawcross
footballNews and updates as Queens Park Rangers host the Potters
Arts and Entertainment
tvHighs and lows of the cast's careers since 2004
News
news
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
New Articles
i100
Life and Style
Couples have been having sex less in 2014, according to a new survey
life
Arts and Entertainment
'New Tricks' star Dennis Waterman is departing from the show after he completes filming on two more episodes
tvHe is only remaining member of original cast
New Articles
i100... with this review
Voices
Holly's review of Peterborough's Pizza Express quickly went viral on social media
New Articles
i100
Arts and Entertainment
musicHow female vocalists are now writing their own hits
Arts and Entertainment
musicBiographer Hunter Davies has collected nearly a hundred original manuscripts
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Cover Supervisor

£75 - £90 per day + negotiable: Randstad Education Group: Are you a cover supe...

Marketing Manager - Leicestershire - £35,000

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager (CIM, B2B, MS Offi...

Marketing Executive (B2B and B2C) - Rugby, Warwickshire

£22000 - £25000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A highly successful organisation wit...

SEN Coordinator + Teacher (SENCO)

£1 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: Job Purpose To work closely with the he...

Day In a Page

Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

Scrambled eggs and LSD

Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

New leading ladies of dance fight back

How female vocalists are now writing their own hits
Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
How to make a Lego masterpiece

How to make a Lego masterpiece

Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam