The writer Barry Hannah died yesterday. I’ve read only one of his books, the 2001 novel Yonder Stands Your Orphan, but it definitely got my attention. The plot is a hectic, amped-up brand of southern gothic. The words always felt to me more important and satisfying than the story they told, though. They’re strung into wonderful, unexpected sentences that glint from the page, and those into paragraphs of similar quality. My love of the book rested on its words and sentences. You know how Olympic winners assessingly lift their new medals in surprise at the heft of them? I feel a little like that encountering a word like “slabby” in the following passage.
In Vicksburg, on the asphalt, the deflected minions of want walked, those who lived to care for and feed their cars, and she watched them outside Big Mart. And the sad philosophic fishermen who lived to drag slabby beauties from the water, that dream of long seconds, so they told her. About the same happy contest as sexual intercourse, as she recalled it, though these episodes sank deeper into a blurred well every day. She loved the men and their lostness on the water. Their rituals with lines and rods and reels and lures. The worship they put into it. How they beleaguered themselves with gear and lore, like solemn children or fools. She had spent too much time being unfoolish, as if that were the calling of her generation. As you would ask somebody the point of their lives and they would answer: horses
Maud Newton, who’s crushed by Hannah’s loss, has posted several worthwhile links, including one to a strikingly frank Paris Review interview with the author. “The talent of word facility,” he says, “is unteachable and uncoachable….I believe you should have the words handy. Not that they all have to be perfect–there’s a lot of cross-outs–but language-to-hand is the sine qua non.”