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Barry Hannah’s Late Love Song to Mississippi: “Get Some Young”

mississippi_swamp_southern gothicBy William Caverlee.

In devising his strange fictions, Mississippi’s Barry Hannah was nearer to a poet and musician than a prose writer, and his language inventions reached a peak in a 1996 short story, “Get Some Young,” from the collection, High Lonesome.

Hannah was born in 1942 in Meridian, Mississippi, and grew up in Clinton not far from the state capital, Jackson. All three of these are located in central Mississippi along Interstate 20.

Today, travelers crisscross Mississippi on I-20 (east-west) and I-55 (north-south) with hardly a flicker of the dread and uneasiness that strangers once felt making their way through the state—a region known fifty or sixty years ago as the most backwards, violent, and racist of all Southern states.

Now, of course, the interstate highway system has homogenized the entire country, and one can travel from coast to coast with nothing but the familiar names of motel and restaurant chains to reinforce the illusion of oneness.

It takes a native like Barry Hannah to exit the interstate and descend among the South’s many rural two-lane roads to confront characters who haven’t received the news that America is now one big happy family. In his Mississippi fiction, Hannah leads us deep into the woods with its unaccountable dread and profound uneasiness.

In “Get Some Young,” Hannah chose to use actual towns and place-names: towns like Mendenhall (pop. 2,500) on US 49, south of Jackson. And the Strong River, which flows into the Pearl, which itself winds southward to the Gulf of Mexico. At first glance, Hannah’s portrait of the beautiful Strong River with its sand bars and rapids, its high overlooks and Edenic forests might be mistaken for a National Geographic photo spread, but veteran Hannah readers will have their ears perked, ready for anything.Mississippi river by David Carroll photographer

The story begins simply enough: Swanly, a beautiful youth of about seventeen or eighteen—a Mississippi Adonis—and four friends embark on a camping trip on the banks of the Strong. Soon, however, three locals—a husband and wife, and the husband’s nemesis, a river-rat woodsman—independently, operatically, and insanely fall in love with Swanly. In a further twist, young Swanly falls for the wife. She’s thirty-two, faded, haggard, but still ripely sensual. Husband and wife proceed to seduce, drug, and rape the youth—together!—even though they hate each another mortally. Much violence ensues.

When the story begins, on a car trip down to the river from Jackson, the five boys see themselves as dazzling young men—cosmopolitan, glib, decadent. They have no idea what kind of fully realized adult perversity lurks in backwoods Mississippi—they haven’t read Faulkner’s Sanctuary. “Get Some Young” is penetrated through and through with an odor of violence and danger; it’s a terrifying story to read, recalling other American horror stories—Deliverance, “The Tell-Tale Heart,” among others.

Is Hannah trying to tell us that Mississippi is still a land of terrors? I don’t know. Probably, like most Southern writers, he was deeply ambivalent about his native region. I live in Louisiana, a state with its own dismal history of poverty, racism, ignorance, violence, and corruption. Thus, I can hardly claim the moral high ground when I look across the Mississippi River to my neighbor to the east.

One summer, years ago, I was hitchhiking on I-20 from Meridian back home to Louisiana. In Jackson, a motorcyclist gave me a high-speed ride across town, via a tangle of off-ramps and on-ramps, straight through the I-55/ I-20 interchange—I’ve never been so scared in my life. When he let me off, a few miles west of Jackson, I found myself stranded on the interstate near Clinton. The day was getting long and I spied thunderstorms approaching from the east. Nearby, I could make out some kind of college or university, and so I walked there, spoke to a passing student about my problem, and he blithely said I could crash for the night in an empty dorm room. The place was Mississippi College, from which Barry Hannah graduated in 1964.

When Hannah died in 2010 at age sixty-seven, he was a professor of creative writing at Ole Miss. He had been steadily accruing a national reputation since his first novel, Geronimo Rex (1972). He was the author of eight novels and five collections of short stories. His honors and awards include the Award in Literature from the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters, a PEN/Malamud Award, a Robert Penn Warren Lifetime Achievement Award, a Guggenheim, and on and on.

In “Get Some Young,” the husband lusting to possess Swanly is named Tuck, a middle-aged store owner, who has watched the boys growing up on their annual camping trips to the river. Tuck lives with his wife, Bernadette, in a house behind the store, in a marriage based on delicately cultivated contempt. Loathing is Tuck’s default spiritual state: loathing of himself, his wife, his two grown sons, and the rest of the world. He should have died of despair long ago save for periodic jolts of attraction to some adolescent like Swanly. Tuck was a scoutmaster once, we learn with a shudder.

When Hannah places us inside Tuck’s brain, the effect is vertiginous and horrifying, as if we were listening to the Marquis de Sade channeled by some Mississippi Caliban, recently trained to speak:

There was Swanly in the pool, the blond hair, the tanned skin. Who dared to give a south Mississippi pissant youth such powerful flow and comeliness? Already Tuck in his long depressed thinking knew the boy had no good father; his home would stink of distress. . . . A boy like that you had to take it slow but not that much was needed to replace the pa, in his dim criminal weakness. You had to show them strength then wait until possibly that day, that hour, that hazy fog of moment when thought required act, the kind hand of Tuck in an instant of transfer to all nexus below the navel, no more to be denied than those rapids they’re hollering down, nice lips on the boy too.

That shattering final line, “nice lips on the boy too,” is simply unwriteable. Sorry, MFA candidates, there’s no learning how to write a line like that. Hannah’s oblique, febrile new language flowered in his seminal collection, Airships (1978), where the typical narrator was a Mississippi male with love troubles. Written about twenty years after Airships, “Get Some Young” is an example of Hannah’s late hieroglyphic style; it contains no quotation marks, no transitions. Settings and points-of-view change suddenly, without the usual markers like numbering or headings, devices that give a reader a chance to catch his breath, to sigh, before diving into a new patch. You don’t read “Get Some Young”; you re-read it; two times, then a third, maybe a fourth, straining every muscle to try to decipher Hannah’s quicksilver prose, which seems to be written in an unknown language, a private Esperanto or Barryanto, a variant of English.

Hannah was born on April 23, Shakespeare’s and Nabokov’s birthday. He shares a taste with the bard for hyperbole and violence. There’s even an eye-gouging scene in “Get Some Young”—perhaps an homage to “Out, vile jelly!” in King Lear. As for Nabokov, “Get Some Young” reminds us of Lolita; both tales are the love-confessions of a maniac. In his obsessive love for Swanly, Tuck is a Mississippi Humbert Humbert, minus the European hauteur, irony, and about a hundred IQ points. Otherwise, in his apoplectic rage against freeloaders and a world going to the dogs, Tuck is Jason Compson in The Sound and the Fury. In his homicidal isolation, he’s Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver. Hannah, like all great fiction writers, is an astute psychologist—although one groans to imagine the strain placed upon an author’s faculties when channeling a monster like Tuck.

Hannah is also sidesplittingly funny. His oeuvre is full of comic madmen. (Well, it takes a couple of readings to find the humor in “Get Some Young.”) It seems that at the beginning of his career, Hannah knew that the Southern grotesque was a dead device—he had absorbed all previous Gothic weirdities: Edgar Allen Poe, Flannery O’Connor, Sanctuary, Deliverance, Cape Fear, even Erskine Caldwell and Harry Crews—and then decided to double down and take the grotesque to another level via his inscrutable, violent, hallucinatory comic riffs.

Along with tortured lovers, gun-owners, and the insane, Hannah’s favorite characters are musicians. One of Swanly’s camping buddies, Walthall, has brought his viola to the river. Another, Arden Pal, has brought a flute. Swanly needs no instrument since he is himself music (or erotic love which here is the same thing). Two other boys, Lester Silk and Bean, make up the troupe. At times it is hard to distinguish the boys, since Hannah focuses so intensely on Swanly. All five are boy/men, obsessed with “music, weapons, girls, books, drinking, and wrestling . . .” They are quintessential Hannah-males, cocksure, desperate—aesthetes dreaming of valor and violence. Swanly, in particular, feels caught between worlds, between boyhood and adulthood, between innocence and precocious despair.

The river-hermit who spies on them is named Sunballs. He’s an unwanted frequenter of Tuck’s country store, and he happens to peep through a window at the very moment that Tuck and Bernadette are ravishing the youth. The sight leaves him “bewitched like a pole-axed angel.” The love triangle has now become a quadrilateral, and (perhaps sensing that the reader is likewise pole-axed) Hannah rapidly brings all the players to the river’s edge for a climactic scene, Deliverance-style—the boys splashing in the water and the lovesick Tuck gouging Sunballs’ eyes, then receiving a knife in the gut in return. The boys rescue Swanly and lead him tenderly back to camp like a casualty of war. . . . Curtain.

Well, not quite. Readers pause, reeling with shock, while Hannah sketches in two or three sentences of epilogue. (Tuck, we learn with gratitude, is dead.)

And the story’s meaning? . . . Is there a meaning we can take from this unprecedented catastrophe on the Strong River? I wouldn’t begin to offer an interpretation for a tour de force like “Get Some Young,” which is a vision of Mississippi that I doubt the state’s tourist board will select for its brochures, a far cry from a genteel visit to Eudora Welty’s house in Jackson or a tour of William Faulkner’s home, Rowan Oak in Oxford.

And yet . . .

Bernadette, oddly enough, has the last scene in the story. We meet her in the epilogue fourteen years after the camping trip. She is now an insane, shattered ancient hag, still tending the store, and, when someone asks her about Swanly, she “began to scream without pause.”

Yet how curious that her wretchedness reminds us of the moment fourteen years earlier when she first laid eyes on Swanly: “Out of the south Mississippi fifth-grown pines, the rabbitweed, the smaller oaks and hickories, the white clay and the coon-toed bracken, she felt away on palisades over a sea of sweetening terror.”

Is Hannah trying to have it both ways? Beauty and violence? I have no idea, but that brief description of the state of Mississippi is as radiant a sentence as anything in literature.

 

William Caverlee is a contributing editor for The Oxford American Magazine and the author of Amid the Swirling Ghosts and Other Essays. He has written for numerous magazines and literary journals including The Christian Science Monitor, Louisiana Cultural Vistas, The Florida Review, and The Cimarron Review. His previous appearances in Literary Traveler include profiles of authors Henry Miller, Thomas Merton, John Kennedy Toole, and Hal Roth.

Main image (and top image) by Miguel Vieira, second image by David Carroll.