Approaching Barry Hannah

Discovering the man behind Oxford’s greatest literary master works

By tim summers

he stories collected in the recently released A Short Ride: Remembering Barry Hannah reveal a hint of the man behind one of Oxford’s largest literary presences. Out of the essays, poems and pictures emerge a person that seems more real, nearer to someone you might have met, than the artist and creator of Airships. But it is singular also in its approach of the writer. It is not a book of interviews of Hannah, although there is one right near the front. Hannah calls his interviews over the years “redundant agonies,” although the one featured is not. Instead, this interview should be taken as a lesson of where to look for Barry Hannah during the course of the collection. When asked what impact he would have on American literature, he said that “it’s impossible for me to know this.” So, to remember him, we take the lead of Hannah himself and measure him by the words of others and those feelings he left behind.


For the readers of this collection, it is possible to gauge a much more intimate version of Hannah than the one that inhabits the greater literary world by focusing on what the writer meant to others. There are students, colleagues, neighbors and friends among the submissions that build together a collective, if sometimes contradictory, mosaic of a man who cared deeply and honestly, although the expression of those feelings could surface in such unique ways. There is the tale of the gift of an automatic .22 pistol to a burgeoning writer, Hannah’s love of frequent tennis matches and of a once-relentless deconstruction of a fellow writer from his perch on a barstool, offset then with the stories of his constant adoption of dogs and the careful handling of star-struck students and writers alike. What emerges is an understanding that while the reader may never know the Barry Hannah that these people knew, loved and learned from, you can at least participate in their memories.


In one short anecdote, Ron Shapiro, the owner of the Hoka, a famous cafe/theater that still stands in the heart of Oxford, describes Hannah as quick to laugh and intimidating with his wit; it is an observation of a dear friend, of someone that knew that laugh, and with that evidence, we move closer into this world. The reader is there with Shapiro and Thacker Mountain’s Jim Dees, sitting in the Hoka as Hannah pulls up with a can of spray paint proposing a change of color scheme to his car and watches later that night as Dees describes “spray paint on his fingers, spirits on his heart, he met the woman who would be the wife of his Oxford years.” When the two of them describe his turn to Christianity late in life, how he did not “push it on anybody,” distance disappears between the idea of the great writer and the reality of the man.


With A Short Ride, Vox Press has brought together an expansion of the understanding of one of the most influential of its literary personalities, which in consideration of the company Hannah keeps, is to claim a lot. While it is not the best way to begin a study of Barry Hannah as a writer, it is an enjoyable tour of the influence one writer can have – not just through his writing, but as a person, with the force and power of his character. For the student, it weaves anecdotes about the craftsman through those that knew him. For the reader of his books, it may reveal more of the author behind the work. No matter from what background A Short Ride is approached, it will lead back to the bookshelves, to copies of works to be enjoyed again or for the first time of one of Oxford’s literary giants.


A Short Ride: Remembering Barry Hannah is available at Square Books in Oxford, on Amazon, or directly through the publisher, Vox Press.

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