When I came to Gambit last month, I did not necessarily intend to become the staff necrologist. But here's my second weekly column for this newspaper and, herewith: my second obituary.
This week's homage is paid to a man whom I assume touched more lives in New Orleans than just my own. He was Barry Hannah, a hard-drinking, savage wit possessed of a sorcerer's command of the English language, a writer of crystal daggers and diviner of the secrets of love.
A Mississippi native, Hannah was a literary avenging angel for the independent Southern booksellers' clique. He was one of those rarified postmodern Southern Gothic raconteurs who morph from a mere writer — author, even — into a character, every bit as insane, incendiary and oddly lovable as the freaks and cranks who populate his novels and short stories.
I never met Barry Hannah, but his stories changed the way I read and — intuitively — the way I would later write.
One night, many years ago, while sitting home alone and reading one of his short stories, "Water Liars," I laughed so hard I pissed myself. As a young man in New Orleans — a poseur and a rake — I got laid while reading Barry Hannah out loud to girls more than any other writer; more than Dorothy Parker, more than Pablo Neruda even.
Writers like that tend to make a lasting impression. I wanted to be Barry Hannah — back then and sometimes now — all wild, indifferent, frighteningly talented and sexed-up. But I couldn't carry Barry Hannah's jock.
He wrote my favorite opening sentences. "He was forty-eight, a fisherman, and he had never caught a significant fish," is the opening line of "Getting Ready." All of my life, I have wanted to be able to say so much while saying so little.
"She had a certain smile that would have bought her the world had the avenue of regard been wide enough for her," begins "Deaf and Dumb."
I remember once, more than 20 years ago, Barry Hannah was in town, staying with a writer friend of mine in his French Quarter apartment. They were drinking heavy, a group of young and middle-aged literary lions, on a Sunday afternoon. Hannah, standing on the balcony of my friend's apartment, was staggering about, casting a fly rod out over the RTA bus every time it rumbled up Decatur Street — the Bus Named Desire, of all things.
He was liquor-store-robbing drunk and started macking on Nancy Lemann, the hottest phenom in print that summer, a New Orleans native and author of Lives of the Saints, Southern chick lit's response to the then-iconic Bright Lights, Big City. I watched and listened from outside their world, wanting to be of it.
They were no saints.
Lemann left the party. My friend called and invited me over. I couldn't imagine any greater literary cred for a young writer at the time than to get faced with Barry Hannah. I wanted to be drunk, admired and critically acclaimed, chasing Nancy Lemann's skirt up and down Decatur Street and casting a fly rod over the Bus Named Desire.
But I didn't show up that afternoon. Truth is, I didn't have the stones. I may have been cocksure and dissolute, but I knew where I didn't belong — and where I had no footing was in the company of Barry Hannah and his confederate men of letters.
I was thinking about that afternoon when I heard Hannah died last week of a heart attack. He was 67 and sober. In a wire service obituary, his friend Malcolm White, director of the Mississippi Arts Commission, said Hannah "loved words, fishing, his family and going fast."
I have a family now, also. There are young writers who think it would be really cool to get faced with me. But time and words change a man. For instance, I have not gotten drunk and fired a gun inside of a house in over 10 years, and it's been more than a year since I last saw the inside of a jail cell.
I am 49 and I have never caught a significant fish. The avenue of regard is wider than I can fathom. Yes, time and words change a man.
Tonight, I will read some Barry Hannah to soothe my restless writer's soul.
My chances of getting laid while doing so are zero.
Chris Rose can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.