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Barry Hannah's Dangerous Syntax

If the dream is to be continuous, we must not be roughly jerked from the dream back to the words on the page by language that’s distracting. Thus, for example, if the writer makes some grammatical mistake, the reader stops thinking about the old lady at the party and looks, instead, at the words on the page, seeing if the sentence really is, as it seems, ungrammatical. If it is, the reader thinks about the writer, or possibly about the editor—“How come they let him get away with a thing like that?”—not about the old lady whose story has been interrupted.

—John Gardner, On Becoming a Novelist

Plus I hated English composition, where you had to correct your phrases. They cast me out like so much wastepaper.

—Barry Hannah, “Coming Close to Donna”


Despite the fact that he’s published eight novels and four story collections (his first novel, Geronimo Rex, was a National Book Award nominee and his last collection, High Lonesome, a Pulitzer Prize finalist), Barry Hannah remains a cult figure: You’ve either never heard of him, or you can rattle off long passages of his prose and work up a sweat debating whether or not he’s a successor to Faulkner. (For the record, Hannah has rejected the label.) You may even be able to cite the make and model of his newest motorcycle. On his Facebook page—yes, he has one, though apparently Hannah himself isn’t the one updating the site (he still writes longhand)—you can learn that Jason in Cheyenne, Wyoming, has a belt buckle carved in the shape of the author’s visage. Jason says he’s invincible when he wears it.

So why has Barry Hannah—considered by many writers and scholars to be the current Great One of Southern Letters (and most would drop the modifiers “current” and “Southern”)—continued to fall under that lackluster rubric, the Writer’s Writer? It isn’t for shortage of compelling material: Hannah’s work touches on such disparate themes as heroism and violence; racial politics; misogyny (Hannah’s characters often have distorted views of women); religious guilt, atonement, and judgment; what it means to be male (treacherous!) or artistic (laughable!) in the modern world; and the relationship between jazz music and narrative improvisation.

The answer for the neglect may be, in part, the sheer strangeness of Hannah’s imagination (Truman Capote once called him the “maddest writer in the U.S.A.”): an old woman roasting and eating a man during a future Second Great Depression in America; a walrus sexually assaulting a woman who’s having an affair with her nephew; a drunk man in an overcoat staggering around Oxford, Mississippi, with a starving cat in one pocket and two shoplifted lobsters in the other and, later, the same man naked on the dance floor, lifting and shaking his enormous penis at everybody, shouting, “You can’t hurt me!”; a group of survivors of a future American environmental holocaust, sitting inside a rocket, again au naturel (Hannah’s characters seem to prefer nudity to clothes), aiming for outer space. And take a look at the opening paragraph of “Green Gets It,” one of the stories in his much-acclaimed collection Airships (1978):

Unable to swim, he had maneuvered to fall off an old-timers’ party yacht in the Hudson River. His departure was not remarked by the revelers. They motored on toward the Atlantic and he bobbed around in the wash. He couldn’t swim. But he did. He learned how. Before he knew it, he was making time and nearing the dock where a small Italian liner sat dead still, white, three stories high. Nobody was around when he pulled up on a stray rope on the wharf and walked erect to the street, where cars were flashing. Day after tomorrow was his seventieth birthday. What a past, he said. I’ve survived. Further, I’m horny and vindictive. Does the fire never stop?

It took me several reads to understand that Quarles Green had attempted suicide. Had the paragraph simply begun, “He had maneuvered to fall off an old-timers’ party yacht,” I might have suspected as much. The “unable to swim” clause disoriented me; who, unable to swim, maneuvers to fall? And in one paragraph, Hannah has an attempted suicide, a near-drowning, a self-rescue, and now the survivor, roaming the streets, concupiscent. Miraculously, the dude remains clothed. (Not to worry—a few sentences later we learn that Green’s housekeeper performs her duties in the buff, while Green rolls around in a wheelchair, pretending to be crippled so that his penchant for derriere-sniffing won’t “disgust her from the room.”)

“But that’s farfetched,” says one of the characters in Hannah’s second novel, Nightwatchmen, “and worse than that, poetic, requiring a willing suspension of disbelief along with a willing desire to eat piles of air sausage.” When it comes to the masters, since when have we not been willing to suspend belief and eat air sausages? Think George Saunders in our generation; Barthelme a generation earlier; Faulkner and Joyce before them. Few rules dictate what—and how—they write. A look at the reviews and criticism over the course of Hannah’s career reveals it isn’t just his subject matter that’s disorienting, but what Thomas McGuane called Hannah’s “moon-landing English”—a virtuosity of language so poetic and acute that critic Kenneth Millard says it “defies rational explication and even the interpretive paradigms that critics might bring to it.” Hannah’s prose has at once inspired the most lavish of praise (Allan Gurganus says Hannah possesses “more talent in the little finger of his right fist than certain humid Southern states do…never a careless ordinary syllable, not a mark that hasn’t first been sung aloud at three A.M. beside some river at a hunting camp”) and the harshest of criticism (Dave Reilly, on the Salon website, cites Hannah in particular when he speaks of works in which “a lot of pretty words get strung together as the writers struggle to make poetry out of every sentence and the result is gibberish”—to which Hannah has responded: “I don’t know whether others are producing gibberish, but I’ll watch out. I certainly never intended to. You must make sense.”).

I read Hannah’s work for the first time after hearing him praised in a Bennington writing workshop. For me—a firstborn, rules-following, English-teacher’s pet—Hannah’s syntax held almost pornographic allure. That said: I couldn’t take Barry Hannah lying down. Here were paragraphs I had to read sitting up, preferably with two sharpened pencils beside me. Here was linguistic anar-chy, the wanton abandonment of verb tense and point-of-view consistency; here were misapplied modifiers and narrators shifting randomly between first-, second-, and third-person voices. Richard Ford notes in his 2004 introduction to Airships that Hannah’s sentences “had a perilous feel; words running almost sedately at precipice-edge between sense and hysteria; verbal connectives that didn’t respect regular bounds and might in fact say anything.” 

In “Testimony of Pilot,” from the same collection, the narrator describes Quadberry’s exquisite BOLERO saxophone solo this way:

When he played, I heard the sweetness, I heard the horn which finally brought human talk into the realm of music. It could sound like the mutterings of a field nigger and then it could get up into inhumanly careless beauty, it could get among mutinous helium bursts around Saturn.

Despite the conspicuous use of the N-word (Hannah’s characters rarely shy from such racist language, a grim dose of realism given their physical/cultural landscape), here was the image I needed to describe precisely what Hannah’s stories accomplished: a re-invented language that soars off the page (mutinous helium bursts/music) while not detracting from the story on the page (field mutterings/talk). Generations of prose writers—Gertrude Stein and Donald Barthelme among them, according to Ford—have “banged themselves and their sentences against conventional and intransigent American prose syntax…with often unsustained results—failing most often to express the matter at hand.” Ford mentions only a few who succeed in forging a fresh idiom while keep-ing a rigorous eye on the “matter at hand”: Faulkner, Alice Munro, and Raymond Carver.

And Barry Hannah, preeminent.


But what makes style style? How, on a micro level, does Hannah work his spell? I’m aware he’s breaking rules—but which “rules”? Are there rules? And how is Hannah able to do so without disrupting the “continuous dream”? Faced with Hannah’s grammatical mutiny, the question isn’t Gardner’s “How come they let him get away with a thing like that?” but, “How does he do a thing like that?”

Hannah blasts three “rules” that typically govern what prose writers are taught. I’m not talking about the rules most of us intuitively sense are arbitrary and love to break—“never write in dialect,” for example—but the more widely accepted rules of grammar and narrative that would generate massive editing efforts in a typical writing workshop.

1) Fix your misplaced and/or misapplied modifiers—they’re downright confusing.

Hannah’s genius in structuring sentences often comes out in his placement of the modifier precisely where it does not belong, an edgy technique whose misplacement jolts us awake and forces the imagery to wander in our minds longer than would be the case with more predictable structuring.

Consider the following illustrations, where the syntactically “expected” versions precede Hannah’s:

Expected: “The croakers swam underwater in a burlap sack tied to a piling.”

Hannah: “The croakers swam in a burlap sack tied to a piling and underwater.” —“A Creature in the Bay of St. Louis”

Expected: “His supposed sweetheart was in a stall, all naked and tied with rope underneath a bull.”

Hannah: “In a stall was his supposed sweetheart, tied underneath a bull with rope, all naked.” —“Quo Vadis, Smut?”

Expected: “But she was red in the face and nearly weeping.”

Hannah: “But she was red and nearly weeping in the face.” —“Carriba”

Expected: “In fact, her only public poem was the one Cornelius had chosen and carved, in quotation marks, on her gravestone.”

Hannah: “In fact her only public poem was the one Cornelius had chosen for her gravestone in quotation marks.” —“Snerd and Niggero”

Expected: “She and the architect were having some fancy drinks together at a beach lounge when his ex-wife from New Hampshire showed up naked and screaming with a single-shotgun gun.”

Hannah: “. . . when his ex-wife from New Hampshire showed up naked with a single-shotgun gun that was used in the Franco-Prussian War—it was a quaint piece hanging on the wall in their house when he was at Dartmouth—and screaming.” —“Love Too Long”

Given Hannah’s sui generis idiom, we simply get carried along with the music and lyrics, after some initial confusion. Whatever the hell he’s doing, he’s doing it very effectively. In fact, he is re-calibrating American syntax. And with regenerative effect: Notice the lulling, almost deadening cadence of the “expected” versions. Hannah’s poetic language requires an intensity of concentration that forbids palliative reading.

2) Never, ever switch verb tenses within paragraphs, and certainly not within single sentences.

In the story “Eating Wife and Friends,” we meet Mrs. Neap, owner of a “rambling inn of the old days.” The first-person narrator of the story is one of several “vagabonds” living in Mrs. Neap’s inn. The story is set in a future South during a New Depression that has, presumably, followed in the wake of an ecological disaster. No slothful ease of life (a frequent Hannah target) in this America: Citizens must forage for food; the Surgeon General has warned survivors to “be sure whatever food you were after surpassed in calories the ef-fort getting it would burn up.” Celery, bad; moths and cockroaches, good. (“Wash the cockroaches if possible,” the Surgeon General warns.) Eventually, Mrs. Neap herself rotisseries an Asian man who was shot dead for jumping off a resettlement train. “I used to know Chinese in the Mississippi delta,” Mrs. Neap says. “They were squeaky clean and good-smelling. They didn’t eat much but vegetables. Help me drag him back.”

We’re outside of any recognizable timeframe, which opens textual space for verb-tense play. Hannah obliges, switching tenses frequently. In the story’s opening paragraph, note the movement from the simple past, into the past perfect progressive tense, and from there straight into the present (emphasis is mine):

We were  very fond of Mrs. Neap’s place—even though it was  near the railroad. It was  a rambling inn of the old days, with its five bathrooms and balcony over the dining room. We had been harboring  there for a couple of weeks and thought we were getting on well enough. But then she comes  downstairs one morning holding a swab, and she tells  me, looking at the rest of them asleep on the couches and rug: “This is enough. Get out by this afternoon.”

It’s subtle, the way Hannah slips from a reminiscent narrative (“we were fond”) into present-tense idiom (“she tells me”). 

This shifting continues throughout the story; until, eventually, the tenses begin to change by the sentence:

“My God, one of them jumped off,” says Mrs. Neap. (simple present)

“I saw. It was an Oriental.” (simple past)

“He is wobbling on the gravel in the front of the yard.” (present progressive)

At the end, Hannah dispenses with any rules of time, allowing his first-person, present-tense, reminiscent narrator to interject this paren-thetical—which describes what is going to happen to the hunter JIM outside the bounds of the story:

(To complete his history, when we move on, after the end of all this, JIM kills a dog and is dressing him out when a landowner comes up on him and shoots him several times with a .22 automatic. JIM strangles the landowner and the two of them die in an epic of trespass.)

The information is not even narrated in the past tense—as one might expect given that JIM is dead and the narrator has lived to relay the information.

In the story “Snerd and Niggero,” the continual changes in tense make it read, initially, like a bum workshop piece:

She had her dress folded back on her thighs with her gift out to Snerd, who was minutely rolling the hem onward so as to roll it even more to her globes’ bottoms. Then his rolling goes even more up her so her dress was as a rolled flag around her neck. . . . Mr. Snerd liked her earlobes even better than that, though, now after these long years. He has his fingers up to them and nicks and fondles them as Mrs. Niggero consumed him up to his navel to her chin, even mashing her freckles there, and sobs around his fundament. Mrs. Niggero didn’t want this at first because she was married to another man, Cornelius.

But she had been doing this eighteen years with Snerd whom she can’t not love in another way. So Snerd played with her ears and croons to her while she sobs preparing him for the inevitable though now somewhat sad primary entrance. She squeezed her eyes blind and he with resignation pushed in amidperson, a little deaf with grief and wild comfort.

What’s Hannah up to? One clue may be in the length of the affair—“she had been doing this eighteen years.” The shifts in tense, then, would capture the habitual nature of their lovemaking (we’ve been at this so long that what we’re doing now, and what we’ve done in the past, are indistinguishable). But unless you knew this was Barry Hannah, you might not give the writer the benefit of the doubt. The opening sentences still read like mistakes, until you read on and realize that Hannah is not just tinkering with, but is flagrantly overturning, the “standard” notion of how time progresses in a story. After the opening two graphs, Hannah delves into the characters, Snerd and Mr. and Mrs. Niggero. Aha—this will be a tidy little love-triangle story. Then this sentence: “When Mrs. Niggero died of an acutely quadraplegical muscular thing that roared into her almost overnight, three years later, Robert Snerd thought for a while that the formality of his public expression of grief had damaged his true sorrow.” Note: “almost overnight” (the sudden), “for a while” (the vague), and “three years later” (the extended period)—all in a single sentence.

Based on their shared experience of loving the same woman, Snerd and Niggero come to a gentlemen’s agreement. And then this final paragraph:

In the next fifteen years, before Snerd died—buried promptly by his wife, who remarried avidly and with great whorish avarice a widowed doctor of their acquaintance—it was said the two men enjoyed a friendship such as had hardly been known in the whole north part of the state, and even up through Memphis.

In one sentence Hannah has summarized not just fifteen years, but also—between the dashes—the bereaved wife’s future activities, which occur well off the page. Not many writers would even attempt this. 

3) Don’t keep switching around from first to second to third person in a single narrative voice.

“Green Gets It” begins in the third person: “Unable to swim, he had maneuvered to fall off an old-timers’ party yacht in the Hudson River.” As the story continues, the line between third- and first-person narration blurs. Green’s dialogue is not placed within quotation marks, making it difficult to distinguish between what Green thinks and what he says aloud. It’s almost as if Quarles Green himself wants to take over and tell his own story—Hannah is barely able to hold him with he-asked, he-said tags, which decrease in frequency until, three pages in, Hannah inserts a white space and finally gives in to Green: “My car was full of prime confiscated booze,” Green begins abruptly.

Once Hannah makes this narrative shift, Green breaks loose: “All you care about is moving chairs and pictures, from room to room,” Green tells his wife.

“Between me and a bucket of paint to freshen up the front porch, you’d choose the paint and we both know it. Me and God hate you.”

She fell in a spasm. She cried out how she could be a full wife.

“Let’s go all the way,” says I.

“Anything to please you and the Lord,” says she.

Green then tells the stories of two men he shot when he was working as an “agent” (presumably during Prohibition), until Hannah reins him in with another white space and a return to third-person narration: “Like me now, said Quarles on his bike. He saw the lights of La Guardia. I’m going to make it. Again, dammit.”

The story’s third section moves from “he said” right into “says I”—this time with no white space: “If only I’d married a good pagan woman who never tired of the pleasures of the flesh, said Green” is followed, one paragraph later, by “‘What?’ I said.”

Finally, Hannah inserts both a white space and asterisks and assumes a more firmly distant third-person voice to depict Green’s heart attack and subsequent death: Green is on an airplane, listening to music on headphones, when “a terrific fist bashed him directly on the heart…. He sat there awhile and died…. The stewardess walked back to look at Quarles Green. He had a tight smug smile on him, his eyes closed, like every dead man who finally hears his tune.”

Note the distancing elements: the matter-of-fact depiction of Green’s demise, with nothing of Green’s interior life revealed; the introduc-tion of the stewardess’s point of view (“[She] wanted to know the tune the old white-haired boy was grooving on”); and, in this final sec-tion, the narrator calls Green for the first time by both his first and last names.


“Mother Rooney Unscrolls the Hurt,” the final story in Airships, also begins in third person: “Mother Rooney of Titpea Street…crept home from the Jitney Jungle in the falling afternoon of October 1965.” We learn it’s a “falling” afternoon in more ways than one when she takes a fall in her dilapidated and “perilously drooping” home, which slants backward over a kudzu-covered cliff. Mother Rooney begins to slide toward the back stairwell—until the pin on the large brooch she’s wearing impales her chest, catches the wood floorboards, and stops her. “How wonderful of the brooch to act like a brake, Mother Rooney thought.”

The rest of the story is the unscrolling of Mother Rooney’s memories as she lies there, waiting for help or death. As her thoughts emerge, the narrative point of view also begins to lose its footing and slips, almost imperceptibly, into first person: “Let them take me to another movie. . . . I peep around and see Mr. Silas. . . . I wait, wait, not sure of anything.” The first-person mode continues for seven paragraphs before Hannah inserts a white space and returns to third person (and to the present scene) with: “The brooch was standing up like the handle of a dagger. . . . The pin of it was sunk three inches in her bosom.”

From here, the story’s narrative stance begins to shift among the first, second, and third person without warning: “It came to her then that she might make her brain like a scroll” (third); “I remember once in front of the King Edward Hotel…I was tired” (first); “It was a thrill to cover your head with a scarf because you were such a low unclean sex” (second). The slippage continues until Harry Monroe, one of her former boarders, shows up—at which point we get the story from his point of view as well.

Would “Green” and “Mother Rooney,” with their radically unconventional narrative shifts, come through a writing workshop unscathed? Wouldn’t we encourage the writer to choose a particular perspective and stick with it? As close-zoom grammarians we may well suggest this—but we’d be missing the panoramic point.

When the poet Sharon Olds writes—

How do they come to the
come to the  come to the  God  come to the
still waters, and not love
the one who came there with them, light
rising slowly as steam off their joined

—we hear the pulse and rhythm of the sex act itself in the repetition of “come to the” with caesuras in between. Likewise, in prose, a shifting narrative stance can work, but only if it is linked to the content of the narrative itself. Without this link, poetry and prose would be reduced to mere acrobatics. Not so with Hannah. In “Green Gets It,” the narrative “quarrel” works precisely because Green is, by nature, a belligerent, quarrelsome fellow. (Look no further than the first sentence of his suicide note: “My Beloved Daughter, Thanks to you for being one of the few who never blamed me for your petty, cheerless and malign personality.”) The constant slipping between first-, second-, and third-person voices in “Mother Rooney” works because everything within the narrative is already shifting. The house is sliding off the cliff; Mother Rooney slips on the floor, slips in and out of consciousness. Form informs character; character informs form.


In a November 2008 article, Wells Tower admits the “syntactic rigor and strange music of [Hannah’s] fiction occasionally get him classified as a difficult or, less appropriately, a postmodern writer, and are probably why Oprah Winfrey hasn’t called him yet.” Yet Hannah has rejected the term “postmodern” as anything other than a historical marker: “I don’t know what post-anything means. Postmodern is a historical term referring to the period after World War II.”

Like Hannah, Donald Barthelme was, at best, dubious about the term. Here’s Barthelme in a 1980 interview: “Critics, of course, have been searching for a term that would describe fiction after the great period of modernism—‘postmodernism,’ ‘metafiction,’ ‘surfiction,’ and ‘superfiction.’ The last two are terrible; I suppose ‘postmodernism’ is the least ugly, most descriptive.”

In his essay “Not-Knowing,” Barthelme details the criticisms leveled at so-called postmodern writers, who write prose that “has turned its back on the world, is in some sense not about the world but about its own processes…is masturbatory, certainly chilly, excludes readers by design, speaks only to the already tenured, or does not speak at all.” Theirs is art that looks at itself in the mirror rather than at the world outside. He goes on to say he would “ardently contest each of these propositions,” but admits that it’s “rather easy to see what gives rise to them.”
What gives rise to them? In Richard Ford’s words, fiction that fails to focus on the matter at hand. 

With Hannah’s storytelling, we ultimately reach the question: Is there a human heart beating here? Are we moved to a deeper under-standing of, and empathy for, the human condition? Or is the allure of Hannah’s fiction simply its linguistic high-wire act? 

In answer, an Old Testament metaphor. In Ezekiel 37, the prophet has a vision of a valley filled with disordered piles of dry bones. The Lord asks him, “Can these bones live?” While Ezekiel watches, there is “a rattling sound” and the bones come together: “I looked, and tendons and flesh appeared on them and skin covered them, but there was no breath in them.” Until the reconstructed humans receive breath from the divine, they are nothing but constructs—clever, indeed miraculous, tricks, but constructs nonetheless. These forms become human only when they receive breath from the Artist who introduced them.

And here is where empirical literary analysis hits a wall. Perhaps one can say only that: Hannah’s characters, pushed to the extremes of human depravity and weakness, somehow wind up communicating a single message: All of life is sacred. How else to account for the numinous quality of Hannah’s fiction, his breathing of life into the “bones” on the page? There is nothing untouched by the divine; there is, as Hannah has said, “a little of the divine in all of us.” Hannah’s prose defies simple categorization. Like music, “it’s ineffable. It is the highest thing you can reach for. It is beyond good and evil; that’s why I don’t like to attach morality or philosophy to the deepest things I feel. They’re just beyond it.”


In “Midnight and I’m Not Famous Yet,” Bobby Smith is tormented by the atrocities he witnessed in Vietnam. At the story’s end, Bobby, now back in his hometown, attends a golf tournament. When Whitelaw, the favorite, loses, Bobby observes the despondency of the crowd and utters what is a fitting response to anyone who might decry the merits of Hannah’s literary achievement:

Fools! Fools! I thought. Love it! Love the loss as well as the gain. Go home and dig it. Nobody was killed. We saw victory and defeat, and they were both wonderful.

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Jamie Quatro

Jamie Quatro is the author of the story collection I Want to Show You More and the novel Fire Sermon. Her work has appeared in the Kenyon Review, the New York Review of Books, the New Yorker, the Paris Review, and elsewhere. She lives with her family in Chattanooga.