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Author Barry Hannah, 67, has died

March 2, 2010 |  7:44 am

Barryhannah Author Barry Hannah died on Monday at his home in Oxford, Miss.  He was 67. The county coroner said Hannah died of natural causes.

Hannah, who was born in Mississippi, broke onto the literary stage in 1972 when his debut novel, "Geronimo Rex," was nominated for a National Book Award and won the William Faulkner prize. Harry Crews, reviewing the book for the L.A. Times, compared Hannah with Flannery O'Connor in his gift for dark humor.

But none of this really does justice to the book or gives any very accurate sense of what the book is. So say it another way: say, "Geronimo Rex" is a lyrical, half-crazed song about growing up in the South during the '50s and '60s. Barry Hannah's exact eye, and the language bringing life to what his eye has seen, is what makes the book worth reading.

Hannah's refreshing language also struck Richard Ford, who told the Associated Press: "Barry could somehow make the English sentence generous and unpredictable, yet still make wonderful sense, which for readers is thrilling. You never knew the source of the next word."

Hannah wrote novels and short fiction, and taught writing at various institutions, including Clemson, the University of Iowa and the University of Mississippi, where he directed the writing program. He worked briefly in Hollywood, collaborating, without much result, with director Robert Altman.

These are things that many writers might have done, but Hannah was unique: He had an outsized, gregarious persona. For a time, he was known for his hard drinking. It was even part of his writing process, he reluctantly told the Paris Review:

Teaching at Clemson was very hard work. I’d come home, put down the babies — and I was trying to be a good father and I think I was — but then that freedom, it was astonishing, my God. Every man or woman who comes home and takes a glass of wine or a couple of hits of bourbon on the rocks knows what I mean. Just this total loosening and release from the white noise of the day, so that you enter another zone. Instead of going to sleep I would hit the typewriter and sometimes write until four and teach my classes very haggardly. But I was often taught that everything is worth it for art. Everything. It was a cult. ... So yeah, I learned things that way, but on the other hand I would have learned things had I been sober.

In 1983, Hannah published "The Tennis Handsome." The novel, our reviewer wrote, "spins wildly around four men from Vicksburg, Miss., a town so full of aberration that it makes Faulkner's Yoknapatawpha County seem like Pasadena in the 1950s." Hannah had settled in Faulkner's hometown, and the author's presence was a good one for the community, he explained in a 1996 interview:

What I like is the high mark that is expected after Faulkner. You don’t have to love Faulkner, but there is a high mark that folks shoot for. It’s very strange in the poorest, probably the most illiterate, state in the union to have a town where this kind of excellence is expected.

That year, Hannah's short story collection, "High Lonesome," was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize. In 2003, he won the PEN/Malamud Award for excellence in the art of the short story.

In our pages in 1972, Harry Crews wrote "I enjoyed the book. I recommend the book. And I think, for what it's worth, Barry Hannah is destined to write some very fine things before it's all over." Indeed, he did.

-- Carolyn Kellogg

Photo: Barry Hannah at home in 1988. Credit: Robert Jordan / University of Mississippi/Associated Press