Guest Post, Matthew Blasi: The Many Lessons of Barry Hannah, Part 3: Break it Down

Here’s a thing. Finish your story and print. Then read that sucker out loud. Does it sing? Does it have rhythm? Have you driven all music from the mouth? Even the best of us run a few sentences to bedlam. Myself, I used to whittle, say, five thousand worn down to three. I believed I’d done the piece justice, a day’s good labor. From there, I believed, there would be little in the way of heavy editing. Just a bit of spit shine here and there.

But think back to my last essay. A good spit shine is neither about whittling nor bulking. Those are just the crude transactions we make upon the page. No, a good polish only comes through purposed editing, a thorough break down of every sentence to better fit it to the writer’s natural rhythms and voice. It’s less the work of rough demolitions, more a careful tailoring. I got another name for it. I call it filling.

Barry Hannah was the master of filling. Take a gander at this excerpt from the Tennis Handsome:

Barry Hannah B&W

Please,” begged Word. “Something to eat. But no coon, no turtle, no snake.”


Daryl went to a wooden box and lifted out a whole cabbage. He walked to the cot Word lay on and slammed it down into the empty pit of Word’s belly.


Word lost consciousness.

Note the second sentence of the second paragraph. A lesser writer might be tempted to trim some of the fluff from that sentence—“the empty pit of”—to get what many of us seek: tight, concise sentences. But such a cut destroys the music, the tone. The threatened clause lends a layer of detail to the scene, informs us on Word’s condition, his gauntness, his privation. When taken with the dialog it’s altogether pleasant medicine whose effect is felt in the belly, the ribs. The next sentence, broken into its own paragraph, is effect. Word blanks out. So too the narrative eye, switching lenses in the following paragraph to the abusive captors until a sudden shift sends us back.

Filling must be used cautiously. That’s about as close to a hard rule as I like to get on it. But I’ll go a step further: filling must be used to preserve the natural rhythms of the storyteller provided it does no harm to narrative functions (plot progression, character development, and so forth). That’s a good deal clunkier than I’d like but you get the idea. Filling’s not about the length of the sentence. It’s about delivery, tone, rhythm. It’s about music. No coincidence music played such a big part in Hannah’s life and stories. The man understood that a good ear for rhythms and melodies, pitches and refrains and all the many parts of a good tune make for a perceptive writer. And mind, I don’t mean perceptive in the traditional sense, that of the eye, the voyeur. I’m talking something else entirely, an awareness of and fondness for space, for sound. I mean a real love for the music of human beings, human things.

What makes Hannah’s work so unique is the abundance, the clarity of the man’s music. It’s in every sentence, rich but never saccharine. Good writers pull it off once or twice per book. Hannah threads it in every sentence. In the strictest sense, his beats are up tempo, somewhere in the range of one hundred and ten, twenty. Unlike Baldwin, Hannah is pure rock and roll, aggressive and driven and rarely cacophonous save for the finer moments of entropy. Late in The Tennis Handsome Mr. Edward, father to French, struggles to get his mind straight. He’s got animals upstairs, a naked wife, beauteous. He’s got noise. He leaves on a rather apt note:

“Mr. Edward’s eyes went shut again.

Olive, the music.”

But here’s a thing in closing. I don’t think such music is beyond the ken and craft of other writers. We can learn from Hannah, take his lessons to heart. We may not have Gordon Lisch but we have Hannah himself. We can break his sentences down, figure out the notes, the melodies. We can ask ourselves probing questions. Where is my music? Where are my notes?

Guest Post, Matthew Blasi: The Many Lessons of Barry Hannah, Part 2: Ain’t it Weird?

The South’s a weird place. Don’t tell me otherwise.

I spent twenty years mucking about in Florida, various parts. A few in Gainesville, a few in Clearwater, a whole bunch in sleepy New Port Richey with its crab shacks and pawn shops and dangerous proximity to US Interstate 19. You’ve never seen a more dangerous stretch of state pavement. Drivers fall to its rhythms, froth with rage. They seem destined to ram something—each other, poles, the titty bar. I’ve been struck by all manner of vehicle while en route. There was a garbage truck, a limousine, a sleek silver scooter no bigger than ninety in the engine. The pilot, a small woman with frosted hair and aviators, came right up to my window and struck me with her sandal. She was barefoot on scorching asphalt just to make violence and she hit me. The whole time she wanted to know what my problem was, where I was deficient. Did I or did I not see the sign? Was this a turn lane? Who was I?

That episode, quite real, seems tame compared to what happens in Barry Hannah’s fiction. Take the deranged couple across the lake in Yonder Stands Your Orphan, the orphans themselves, their heavy armaments. Is their assault on the barge, their curious fortifications truly otherworldly? Is Man Mortimer, the deranged antagonist and protagonist of the novel? How about Ned Maxxy and all his watching, his secret touches? Part of what makes Hannah’s work so vivid is the wild imagination at work. Therein lies a peculiar weirdness, one drawn from the strange fiber of the South. This was, after all, a region punted into mechanization after a prolonged and staggered war, a hot bed for carpetbaggers, post-Reconstruction vultures. Is it any wonder madness takes up so much of the stage in Southern fiction? My own theory points to the move from the rural to the urban. It just didn’t take, not like the North. We’re dealing not with two minds but many, cracked prisms with twangy accents.

Yonder Stands Your Orphan

But the weirdness in Hannah teaches far more important lessons to the wary student. The first is that imagination unleashed is a boon, not a hindrance, to the writer with genuine talent, grit, heart. There’s no accounting for all the movements of Ray. You flat out couldn’t outline it. What you get are characters with desires, a thing sadly lacking from much contemporary fiction. Then you get the land, the richness of the place around them. But that’s not on the page, in the paper. It comes from the characters, first and foremost. It springs out of their eyes, their mouth, all the little movements. More than tact, it’s nuance. Gordon Lisch taught Hannah how to trim everything down to the proper rhythms, but the rhythms come from the characters. That’s where we who pretend to the pen need to sit up and take notice. Did your story, your book, spring from your character? Or have we built everything in lieu of them, a way of explaining who and what they are? The latter, we learn from Hannah, is folly, the bone road.

Too, we learn the difference between volume and clarity. This one’s a doozy. How many of us have powered through a workshop (MFA grads, y’all know, oh yes) and heard some cabbage head say, “I want to know more about this character.” This is said with total sincerity, great caution. So and so practically simpers as speaks, paws the desk. Were it allowed, he might lick the table, taste the salts of human nearness. Meek as a doe. And you might be tempted to revise, add in another paragraph or two or three and ruin an otherwise good piece. Because it’s not about volume, friend. It’s about clarity, precision. Go back to your Hannah, The Tennis Handsome. Pick up on Professor Word after French ruins him on the court:

A nurse and a man in white came up to quell the noise from Word. Levaster went back into the closet and shut the door. Then he peeped out, seeing Word and his brother retreating down the corridor, Word limping, listing to one side, proceeding with a roll and capitulation. The stroke had wrecked him from brain to ankles. It had fouled the center that prevents screaming. Levaster could hear the man bleating away a hundred yards down the corridor.

Five tidy sentences are all that’s required to understand James Word post stroke. Much could be made of this neat paragraph, even more extracted in craft and technique. But precision is what we’re after if for nothing more than to silence the cabbage heads. What better way to deliver the weirdness of the South and its many inhabitants than a targeted strike, word by word, into the very heart of the thing?

How’s this for targeted. After that woman beat me with her sandal I didn’t know what was what. I never got her name or insurance, never called anyone. There wasn’t even a dent. At home in the mirror I glimpsed the red imprint of her sandal, a swath of dirt across my face. I might have loved her. I hung around the intersection hoping her scooter would plow into me, mar the door, bust a window. I was ready with a baseball glove, a pen and some paper. The plan was to ask her out, make sweaty love, marry her. But it wasn’t to be.

A month later I saw her at the store. She was buying pickles, all the varieties, a whole cart full. I went up full of my own juice, testy, moral. She didn’t recognize me. Just gave me the eye and went on with her shopping. Me, I slithered away. I went home and checked myself into a chair with some beer. There was no accounting for it. What a weird, weird way to live, to love.