Friday, September 10, 2010

Remembering Barry

For some time I’ve wanted to write something about recently deceased southern writer, Barry Hannah. Barry played some part in my childhood as our mothers were sisters, and he and I first cousins. There is a stash of old words and images, days, nights and childhood games that continue to occupy a corner of my memory and keep this cousin fresh in mind. To my regret, the last time I saw Barry was in 1972, shortly before his first novel was published by Viking Press. That novel was Geronimo Rex, which launched the writer, and was subsequently nominated for the National Book Award. Barry was in New York for a meeting with the publisher and we spent a few hours visiting and catching up. He died of a heart attack on March 1 of this year.

The strange thing is, as much as I liked Barry and respected his talent, I have never been a big fan of his books and stories. I’ve read enough of his writing to realize it’s not a matter of one novel or one story, but an impression that encompasses a good part of his work. On occasion I have stumbled upon this or that story in some anthology that truly grabbed me, shook me and wrung me out, but these times have been fewer than I would wish.

This morning I pulled down for the second time a collection of stories by southern writers, one which includes a story written by Barry sometime around 2000, and first published in the magazine, Le Monde. The collection is titled, The Cry of an Occasion: Fiction from the Fellowship of Southern Writers, and was published in 2001. The book features nineteen stories by as many writers, and includes the above mentioned Barry Hannah story, “Death and Joy.” This one story is by no means the centerpiece of the collection, but it is still one of those pieces by Barry that I found some connection with, and read through two times back to back.

Though I cannot say so with any assurance, I suspect the story grew out of an acquaintance, sort of friendship Barry had with a local character in Oxford, Mississippi, location of Ole Miss University, where he was writer-in-residence for something like twenty-eight years.

Elkin Dixon Willifox in “Death and Joy” is a character the writer likens to Tennessee Williams. From most perspectives the man is an almost pitiful caricature of an aging southern queen, a drunk who finds some vestige of comfort in his odd and often ridiculed existence. He is one who falls in love with any man who treats him however briefly with kindness. Hannah links his character to the famous playwright with reference to the well-known Blanche Dubois line from A Streetcar Named Desire, “I have always depended upon the kindness of strangers.”

The story ends with regret that Willifox dies without ever receiving the respect due to him, either for his mere humanity, or for his talent as a near poet. Only after it is too late does the narrator lament that he didn't have the courage to take the old queen’s hand in that ‘good ole boy’ atmosphere of southern Mississippi at the time.

Most fans of Barry Hannah’s books would call this a minor work, but however you classify it, there is evidence enough in its ten or so pages to show why one critic described the writer as, “One of those young writers who is brilliantly drunk with words and could at gunpoint write the life story of a telephone pole.”

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About Me

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Oak Hill, Florida, United States
A longtime expat relearning the footwork of life in America