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'Long, Last, Happy': Barry Hannah's Southern Charm

Long, Last, Happy

Barry Hannah was a lit firecracker in a whiskey bottle, and no one who's ever experienced his work can forget it. I was 16 when I first read Airships, Hannah's debut short story collection. It was like hearing Bob Dylan for the first time, if Dylan had been an unrestrained, funny as hell, bourbon-soaked Southerner. And while I'd read my Faulkner and grew up two states away from Hannah's beloved Mississippi, I'd never realized Southern literature — any literature — could do this before. If Barry Hannah's fiction didn't change my life, exactly, it made it more fun — and probably saved me from an intolerable teenage Sartre and Camus phase.

There will never be another Hannah, as the literary world realized in March of last year, when the author died suddenly of a heart attack at 67. He left behind a wealth of novels and short stories, though, some of which (Geronimo Rex, Bats out of Hell) will be guaranteed places in the canon for a very long time. The new Long, Last, Happy: New and Selected Stories collects some of Hannah's best work and includes four new stories that Hannah had completed before his death. It's not only the perfect introduction to Hannah's fiction; combined with the previously unpublished stories, it forms a stunning, defiant and wholly original valediction from the second king of Mississippi literature.

Hannah was obsessed with the best and worst of the region and country to which his art was so devoted. He was fascinated with war, and in stories like "Dragged Fighting from His Tomb," a bizarre, explosive Civil War tale, he captures the insanity of the conflict with anger and something like a bitter sense of humor. The same goes for "Sick Soldier at Your Door," one of the new stories here, about a veteran of the first Gulf War that reads almost like a reprise. He tackles American literary history with "Two Things, Dimly, Were Going at Each Other," an angry, funny, (very) thinly veiled story about William S. Burroughs. And although he loved writing about America's favorite pastimes, both good (fishing, love, drinking) and bad (war, love, drinking), he was maybe at his best when he wrote about music — the heartbreaking "Rat-faced Auntie," which chronicles a jazz band with drug-addicted players "shot full of the world's worst bad," is unforgettable.

It's been over 15 years since I first discovered Hannah in the stacks of my high school library (how he came to be included in the collection of a tiny Catholic school, I'll never know), but reading these stories made me realize that the effect he has on his fans doesn't dissipate over time. I remember nearly crying when reading "High-Water Railers" in college. I did cry this time. The man wrote the way Django Reinhardt played guitar — you have to experience it to believe it, and even then, you're not entirely sure how the hell he pulled it off. He was an American original, a bona fide Southern hell-raiser with the voice of a drunk angel, shot full of the world's best good.

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