TWISTED AND SERIOUS Hannah’s work might draw blank stares from the general populace, but his fellow writers revere him.
Gene Kwak first came across the work of Barry Hannah while studying journalism at the University of Nebraska.
"I don't even remember how I found him," says Kwak. "But when I found him, it took my head off. I was like, What the hell is this? It was just so different from anything I'd ever read."
He found Airships, Hannah's groundbreaking 1978 story collection. It's Hannah's debut, and most famous work — the kind of book that sends writers into tipsy reveries, makes them proselytize about sentences, wonder, and joy.
Kwak soon devoured everything else Hannah had written. "His characters remind me of my friends," he says. Kwak's favorite story, "Ride, Fly, Penetrate, Loiter," from the 1985 collection Captain Maximus, is about a drunk who gets stabbed in the eye.
In 2008, Kwak began an MFA in fiction writing at UMass-Boston. On the first day, his seminar leader asked the students which writers influenced them. "Everyone was like, who's Barry Hannah?" says Kwak.
Everyone except his professor, novelist and Agni magazine founder Askold Melnyczuk. He had not only read Hannah but knew the man himself. "Barry's an old pal from my Bennington days," Melnyczuk says. He taught and Hannah lectured at the college's writing seminar. "English departments are slow to absorb the work that really matters," says Melnyczuk. "He can shock politically correct sensibilities with his language and his diction."
Hannah was born in Mississippi in 1942, and taught at the University of Mississippi for 28 years. Gordon Lish — the former Esquire and Knopf editor known as Captain Fiction — launched Hannah's literary career, publishing many of the stories that would wind up in Airships. Along with Amy Hempel, Richard Ford, and Raymond Carver, Hannah was part of an American short-story renaissance in the '80s. Though most of his books are novels, Hannah was best known for his short-story collections. His darkly funny update of the grand tradition of Southern fiction has been characterized as everything from gonzo to postmodern.
As a graduate student, Kwak began to think about making the trek down to Ole Miss to meet Hannah.
"I don't care much for literary pilgrimage," says Kwak. "I don't care about seeing some old chair that a famous writer sat in. This was the one time that I really wanted to make a trip to seek out one of my heroes. I was hoping to, by the end of the program, have time and money left over to go to Oxford to see if I could talk to Barry for a second."
But Hannah died this past March, before Kwak had the chance. Instead of meeting him, Kwak decided to plan a memorial.
Last month, he went to Melnyczuk with the idea. "I knew of Gene's passion for him, and it was very touching," Melnyczuk says. "He spoke about him in just the right way and loved him for just the right reasons, so I thought he was the right man for it."