On Barry Hannah’s LONG, LAST, HAPPY

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Barry Hannah died in March of 2010. Since then, I’ve regretted not answering the Christmas card he’d sent to me three months earlier. Thirty-six hours before he died, I received what may be the last letter Barry wrote. It began as a recommendation for a writer applying to the MFA Program I direct, but halfway through it the letter’s tone and content changed. It became personal. Barry said he loved the time he’d spent teaching in our program, from fall 2004 through spring 2005, although his year with us didn’t begin well. While driving from Mississippi to Texas, towing the Suzuki motorcycle he would ride around town with his dog Nell huddled against him, Barry received a call from his urologist. Barry’s prostate cancer had returned, he was told, and he’d have to undergo a new round of chemotherapy. One day he said to me, “I am so sick of sickness.” He’d suffered through a decade of it and, ultimately, his struggle to continue writing made him question what he called “the efficacy of words.” Was there any purpose in the work he was doing, he wondered. Did writing fiction matter? At some point, every writer asks him or herself this question, but, paradoxically, the answer is found only by writing. That’s how you learn whether you have anything worth saying or left to say.

Barry didn’t go into specifics about the novel he was struggling with at the time. All he said was, “There’s a lot of Christ in it.” He never completed the novel, but in the final decade of his life he wrote four brilliant, comic, sui generis short stories. No one has ever written, and no one ever will write, like Barry Hannah. His prose mangles the English language to the point of incomprehension, which then emerges, uncannily, as music.

Five hundred pages of Barry’s songs have been collected in his final book, Long, Last, Happy. I can’t imagine any serious American writer not owning this book, or anyone reading it without a sense of awe. The story titles alone are marvels: “Midnight and I’m Not Famous Yet”; “Mother Rooney Unscrolls the Hurt”; “Hey, Have You Got a Cig, the Time, the News, my Face?” Also, in a rare instance of a book jacket being as good as the book it envelops, Grove Press has designed a minor work of art that features a black and white photograph of a twenty-something year-old Barry seated front and center, wearing a black leather jacket and brandishing a lighted cigarette while he scrutinizes you, his would be reader. His demeanor suggests that he may be willing to let you read his stories, if you first surrender all conventional understanding of what constitutes a short story.

“Writing should be a journey into worthy perception,” he once wrote. This collection traces Barry’s journey, and accompanying him on it deranges one’s senses. One story is entitled, “Knowing He Was Not My Kind Yet I Followed.” Here’s the greater part of his life’s work. There’s only one thing to do: buy his final collection and follow him through it.

–Tom Grimes is the author of Mentor: A Memoir.

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