I spent most of the 1970s in Tuscaloosa, in substantial, if not constant, pain.
Now and again, a light flared on the dark night of that decade, and the memory glows still.
I lived in Mallet Assembly, the men’s honors dorm, at the University of Alabama. A placed filled with heroes to me in those times.
The first-ever black student government association president briefly lived in Mallet. (It was no small achievement for a black student to be elected president at a Greek-heavy university where George Wallace once stood in the schoolhouse door.) My roommate for one semester made himself into a Rhodes Scholar; he was the smart one in room 217. My best friend would publish his first novel at age 26 and five more since.
I longed to be a writer myself, but had no idea—none—how to make that happen. I came out of a town in the corner pocket of Alabama where no one wrote, or knew a writer, or had ever known a writer. Hell, a fourth of the population down home couldn’t even read. (They still can’t, according to a soul-crushing literacy study published a few years ago.)
So how does a boy from such a place learn to be a writer? It seemed logical to take a writing course. So I signed up for two—one in poetry and one in fiction. I excelled in verse, earning a standing ovation in class for one of my poems.
I struggled in fiction, scared out of my wits by the instructor and afraid to stretch or shrink either under the cobra bite of his criticism.
The instructor’s name was Barry Hannah. It was his first year at Alabama, and he arrived as the hot young colt of American fiction writing. Gordon Lish, the editor of Esquire, had run one Hannah short story after another in that great magazine, and Barry’s first novel, Geronimo Rex, had been nominated for a National Book Award.
So a real writer stood right there. I could see him, study him. I could even suffer like him, if I chose.
Oh, Barry suffered. Those were the years his marriage was coming undone, when he shot an arrow through the plate glass window of some imagined rival, when he stole a motorcycle off the front porch of a house on 10th Street and roared away into the night, unhelmeted and drunk as a boiled owl. He was drinking tumblers of vodka, colored with a splash of milk. Airships, one of the great American short-story voyages into sheer suffering, was on its way, and then Ray. I still read both books as memoir, as chronicles of Barry’s failed effort to be a husband, a writing teacher, an Alabamian.
Never mind. Yonder stand your writer. Right up there in front of the class, smallish and lethal, something Choctaw in his face, and something snaky. He’s the teacher with the sneer, the dark shades, the cruel strike with never even a rattle, his teeth suddenly deep in the throat of your dream.
Barry acknowledged my determination, at least, and he endured my company, unlike some others. And he accepted, to my great astonishment, an invitation to come to my dorm and give a reading one night—to Mallet Assembly, just a dank and crumbling dorm on the campus of an unexceptional university.
He would read from Airships in the basement, he said. He would do it for free.
Barry was a coup for me. I served as social chairman for the dorm. Our Mallet guests rarely went beyond an occasional security officer, and girls from the dorms on either side of ours. A writer of novels was a novelty.
The assembly turned out in force. We packed into the concrete-walled basement, 50 or 60 pimply, stoned kids slouched on beanbags and Astroturf. Many of us dripped from one of those violent summer storms outside. Any movie ever made of Tuscaloosa should be filmed during a lightning storm.
As Barry prepared to read, the world exploded. Then illumination in the dorm flickered out, and in the blackness rolled the most frightening, apocalyptic thunder since the moment Cain brought down a stone on his brother’s head.
That power failure left Tuscaloosa darker than a coal mine, and the Mallet basement even darker than that. Bats tiptoed through that dark, with their little winged hands stretched out in front of them, feeling the way.
Magically (Boy Scouts had nothing on be-prepared Malleteers), a galaxy of lighters and matches (always ready for the bong) flicked on. Then, out of nowhere, like a pillar of fire in the wilderness, an oil lamp flared to life.
Barry Hannah took a seat in the yellow lamplight. He opened the copy of Airships. He started a story called “Knowing He Was Not My Kind, Yet I Followed.” It’s set in the Civil War, a fiction of Jeb Stuart, the Confederate general with a “heroic body odor” and his very gay adjutant.
Barry read. We listened. We marveled. We laughed. In fact, the lamp shook from our laughter, and our shadows on the walls writhed and leaped, and there was never, ever, any question after that moment of who I wanted to be and what I wanted to do for the rest of my life.
That lamp wasn’t perfect, but it was a beacon, brother.
So were you, Barry.