"The point is to strip down, get protestant, then even more naked. Walk over scorched bricks to find your own soul. Your heart a searching dog in the rubble." –Barry Hannah
Later on this afternoon I will enter my graduate seminar in “Narrative Theories and Knowing” and read aloud from the collected works of Barry Hannah. Those of you who have read his work—from the brilliant early novel Geronimo Rex through the remarkable novella Ray and ending up with the magnificent posthumous collection out just last year Long, Last, Happy—chances are good that my selection of his short story “Water Liars” for a reading will come as no surprise. For those of you who do not recognize his name, believe me, opening up one of his texts will change forever how you read and think about the power of literature. For those of you who write, opening up one of Barry’s texts will likely cause you to have the same reaction Richard Ford had when he first read him:
“His very conception of what a story could be was one I’d never thought of. His sentences had, among their teeming effects and emotions, a perilous feel; words running almost sedately at precipice-edge between sense and hysteria; verbal connectives that didn’t respect regular bounds and might in fact say anything.
“If voice is the music of a writer’s intelligence, Barry’s voice was the one many of us hear when we speak candidly to ourselves—subversive, inventive, unpredictable, funnier than we can be in public and certainly on the page. This was and is a true voice, though also truly literary—which is to say, heightened, felicitous, privileged speech you converse with intimately in your mind.”
Reading Barry Hannah is a joy, but his stories are not for the timid. Sentence after sentence there are raw surprises on the page that cause rude sensemaking and laughter, but that is not why I return to his stories. I return to them for the wake-up call in that singular voice. And lately I’ve needed a wake-up call.
When I am laid low by the unfairness of life, say, like last week the death from cancer of a young colleague named John T. Warren, or in the weeks before that from worry over the illness of a beloved family member, or for a long time now just exhausted from politics, or pissed about events I have no control over, and cannot get motivated to write or do much of anything, I go back to Barry Hannah and listen to that voice.
I remember the first wake-up call I heard in it and think about how it was that he told me an ugly truth that I did not want to hear, but that in hearing it, identifying with it, recognizing the truth in it, offered me strength. What he said, after reading one of my first stories and pronouncing it “horrible”—a grim Kafka-esque tale about what I can’t even recall—was that I “was going to have to learn how to tell the truth before anyone would believe me.”
More wisdom probably came with that pronouncement, but I don’t remember any of it. What I do remember is that for everything that suddenly felt broken inside of me, there was also a cruel radiant redemption just beyond my reach, a place I could get to if I got over being myself, or at least the learned false self that cloaked a dark story about my family’s clandestine life in The Castle’s imitative clothing. That conversation was the first clue I was given to unlock the mysteries of not only storytelling, but of the story that was my own life.
Now, in retrospect, I can say that Barry Hannah’s was the first voice I heard that gave real purpose to my writing life. It empowered an attitude that transformed my own relative coolness and swagger into something more than that, into a desire that could only be satisfied by a life course in self-improvement aimed at getting down on the page the truth of my experiences.
That life course in self-improvement was a small thing in comparison to the tools that came with it. First, Barry taught me by example a way of understanding the power of language—the poetics of ordinary speech made extraordinary by context and usage—to evoke the mysteries of cultures and identities. And second, he shared with me the outrageous idea that telling a story well wasn’t, as Heidegger would have it, a “destination” but instead it was an arrival, not a task to tick off my to-do list and be done with, not just a line on a cv aimed at tenure, but instead as the opening up of life lived as an adventure.
Those lessons are good lessons to know and to live by. That is why when I get down and feel “flocked around” like the narrator “crucified by the truth” in “Water Liars,” I go back to that story and remember that it is ultimately all about redemption. Read it yourself. Read it and learn how redemption often means listening to an ugly truth about yourself that nobody wants to hear, but that in hearing it, identifying with it, offers you strength.
So it is that I find my way out of the gray everydayness of the past two weeks. So it is that I re-enter the great circus of ordinary life with hope and a smile.
Like I said, this is personal. But I hope you are glad that we shared it.