Melnyczuk approached other New England writers who knew Hannah. Within a few days, he had an all-star lineup. This Wednesday, at Newtonville Books, Amy Hempel, Sven Birkerts, Jennifer Haigh, Blake Butler, Mike Young, and James Parker will join Kwak and Melnyczuk for an evening of readings and remembrance. Melnyczuk characterizes them as "a coalition of unlikely Northerners eager to pay homage to the voice of the South."
AN IMPROVISATORY EAR
Hempel is among contemporary fiction's most exalted short-story writers, and a creative-writing professor at Bennington. She met Hannah 30 years ago. "I wrangled a magazine assignment to profile him," she says. "I wanted to meet him because I adored his work. . . . Nobody else sounds like Barry. He really did reinvent the language. You hear that a lot, but Barry really did."
"His stories are like nothing I'd read before or since," says Melnyczuk. "His slow, careful sentences rivet you. They duck like [Muhammad] Ali. . . . The key to it is the singular, serious, twisted rhythm of each sentence. He would always write slowly, enunciating carefully, and you were sure you were with him until the sentence suddenly dove to a place you to a place you never expected."
"Barry had that X factor," says Birkerts, a renowned essayist and literary critic who knew Hannah from Bennington and has written about his work. "I suppose it's something a lot of jazz musicians have: an improvisatory ear. There's a real high surprise count in them. You think you know where he's going and you sort of do, but he finds a way to tug the rug . . . I think he has, fundamentally, a musical sensibility."
Birkerts attributes Hannah's sensibility partly to his heritage. Hannah lived in the South his whole life and wrote about the people of Mississippi. By the time he passed away, his presence had come to define Oxford's literature as much as its most famous export, William Faulkner.
"Barry was the hero of the local book scene," says Birkerts. Hannah spent a lot of time in Square Books, Oxford's venerable independent. "When you walk in there, one of the first things you see . . . is a picture of Barry in his youth in a leather jacket and long hair, looking very cool," he says. "He had been a very notorious wild man."
Young Hannah is the stuff of legend. Many of his obituaries mention his purple motorcycle, his notoriously heavy drinking. It's rumored that Hunter S. Thompson once called Hannah crazy. "There were so many stories and rumors and legends swirling around the guy," Melnyczuk says. "I'd heard the stories of the hard-drinking guy who'd walk into a classroom with a gun and would occasionally use it. My Barry was very a different guy. He was a soft-spoken lover of French literature and philosophy."
As Hannah got older, his image transformed from primo badass of postwar American letters to cuddly bow-tied mentor, endearing him to writers all the more.
"He had his share of torment in real life, and yet it didn't seem to interfere with the quality of what he brought to the page," says Hempel. "He was a hard character early on, who turned his life around in all the important ways. He was the funniest person I've ever known, and such sweetness behind it, and really one of a kind in every way. He was generous to other writers, so I think it's not surprising that other writers are eager to pay tribute to him."