The Character Voice of Barry Hannah


Had a heart attack not cut him down in 2010, Barry Hannah would be turning 72 this year. And, as is wont to happen after an artist’s death, Hannah’s writing has slowly found new appreciation in both the old and new guard of American writers. Known for his grimly comic narratives and pinball velocity, what makes Hannah’s work so consistently interesting is the fact that, quite often, it’s his use of character voice and personality that enthralls the reader. These qualities instill life through a series of techniques—flourishes; fluctuating high/low vocabulary (including racial slurs); inventories; parallel construction, and varying narrative viewpoint (from first-person point of view to second- and third)—and craft action when nothing physical transpires.

Hannah manipulates character voice and personality to their fullest wonder in the short novel Ray, a gem from 1980. Spanning a mere 113 pages, Ray is comprised of 62 “chapters,” some of which last only a sentence or two, and details the adventures of the title character, a southern doctor in his thirties. The novel opens with Ray in the hospital, recovering from a drug overdose, claiming, “There are dry tiny horses running in my veins.” (4) Through memory and imaginative flights, Ray narrates a tale of love and destruction. He speaks frequently of Sister Hooch, his on-and-off lover who dies tragically at the hand of a minister, as well as Westy, his second wife. Between jags recounting his moonlighting as a night school professor, his lauded research papers (with titles like “Three Seraxes a Day for the Alcoholic”), and his theft of a Lear jet, Ray journeys back to his days in Vietnam, where he served as a Navy pilot—another source of loss and tragedy. These military memories lead Ray to relate his hallucinatory participation in the Civil War as a Confederate soldier. Trapped between the past and the present, Ray swirls about in the story of his life, looping through time and place until the novel’s conclusion.

Hannah chooses to structure Ray roughly as a first-person dramatic monologue, and his use of southern vernacular and rhetorical flourishes foster the character voice contained within each page. The following sentence kicks off the story: “Ray is thirty-three and he was born of decent religious parents, I say.” (3) Here, the added flourish “I say” immediately draws out the narrator’s southern characteristics. This tag adds power to what would otherwise be a mundane exchange of information. Rather than launching with an info dump, a hammering quality accompanies the embellishment that, on the level of narration, elevates action and promotes audience engagement. It calls the reader to attention in a familiar, colloquial way. Akin to the bombastic style of many southern preachers and revivalists, a kind of sermon begins, with Ray as evangelist. These southern flourishes pepper the entire piece. Ray calls one of his marriages “one of the great bad strokes” (85) of his life. He considers sex with his wife “a roll,” (96) says he wants to “put it to somebody, duke a big guy out” (43) when thirsting violence, and refers to his son as “boy” (“You, boy, will travel with beauty” [91]).

Hannah’s alternating use of high and low vocabulary further expresses the personality of Ray’s voice. This word choice intersperses colloquialisms like “I say” or “boy” within a mixture of language, from sophisticated to sophomoric, often within the same sentence or passage. In his work Rabelais and His World, Mikhail Bakhtin explains that low, insulting language in literature is a rooted in what he calls “carnival familiarity” found in the folk culture and humor of the Middle Ages. In this carnival context, such language was common, and while these phrases were “humiliating and mortifying,” they also “at the same time revived and renewed.” (16) When writing in this manner, then, Hannah brings about juxtaposition and challenge, for while functioning to complicate the character and narrative personality, a fluctuating language also compels the reader to stretch his own perceptions. In addition, these moments provide humor, verbal loudness, and rhetorical banter.

For example, when Ray states, “I went back in the other room, raised up her skirt, and stuck the meat in her,” (82) or describes a female companion as, “a gorgeous and restless lady, with an amazing amount of beard around her sex,” (36) the reader notices the irreverent bluntness at the end of each passage. This bluntness, immediately funny to some, is made all the more obvious and powerful by its union, particularly in the second description, with more sophisticated language, as the first half of the sentence is quite eloquent. The image painted of a “gorgeous and restless lady” entices the reader while remaining relatively neutral. But by continuing with his sexualized description in a coarse manner—“an amazing amount of beard around her sex”—Hannah provokes reaction by forcing one into a potentially uncomfortable position of knowledge. Such a personal detail about a character leaves the reader feeling strangely voyeuristic, and somewhat dirty—“humiliated” in the Bakhtinian sense.

This same discomfort occurs in the following passage: “The SAM missile came up, the heat-seeker. It stood in front of me like a dick at twenty thousand feet, and the squadron captain told me what the hell was going on.” (45) Hannah once again sexualizes the character voice. But here he takes a scene of action and drops in a weirdly funny, rather ribald description of a missile. Momentarily plucking the reader from an otherwise intense, dramatic moment, Hannah provides an uneasy comic relief, one that is expressed in an unexpected way. Though he’s hardly the first to compare missiles to phalluses, the crassness of Hannah’s language incites audience unease. The phallus dangles in one’s face, so to speak, and is enormous.

Another form of provocation by low vocabulary, and a further example of vernacular language, is Hannah’s frequent use of racial slurs. Subsequent to his missile account, Ray describes his captain and his war experience as follows:

He was a nigger from Louisiana. I think that was the first time a nigger saved my life. Flight Captain Louis Diamond saved my life and I shot the SAM missile out of the air.

Fuck you, heat-seeker! Take some cold steel!

Then when Quisenberry was down on the beach and the gooks were running out to capture my friend from Mississippi, I slowed it down and turned the nose of that Phantom almost perpendicular to the ground. (45)

The words “nigger” and “gooks” pop from this section. And while his use of what we now consider politically incorrect terms may reflect elements of Ray’s character history—that is, his potentially racist roots and the lingo of many Vietnam War veterans—such incendiary language certainly ruffles a majority of Hannah’s contemporary audience (and rightfully so). Like the sexualized phrasing, the racial slurs—“Her grandmother was a Presbyterian missionary killed by the Gooks” (3) and “Saw a nigger in a Federal suit and asked him if I could try out his gun” (81) are two more quick examples—continually provoke and needle the reader and keep the narrative decibel level high. They punctuate already compelling prose, molding a troubled, complex protagonist from a very specific time who isn’t particularly likeable. Though such language can be seen as gratuitous by today’s standards, these choices by Hannah do not make the prose itself feel dated. Instead, they shake the reader’s comfort, turning the tables and asking the timeless question, “Are these words acceptable?” And while we all may find such language revolting, it is through the use of these words that Hannah continuously raises his narrative’s volume.

But not all of Hannah’s verbal tricks in Ray hinge on reader provocation. Though these elements help form the personality of the character voice, the author’s frequent inclusion of inventories and repetition help cement it within the text. Here, Ray’s southern heritage shines once more. Inventories, or the act of listing items in a detailed manner, add action at the level of narration. This action can be seen in the following three passages:

The stacked tires, the station wagon half-captured by kudzu and ivy, the fishing boat on wheels, the tops of an ash and pine rising from the falling ravine behind the backyard. (5)

She had an expensive stereo system with Devon speakers, a microphone stand, a Martin guitar on the bed, which was brass and costly, a thick oyster-shell carpet on the floor, a tape deck, rugged white thick curtains on the window, and the walls were solid acoustic tile as well as the ceiling. (34)

Deborah, Sammy, Lenora, David, Edward, Jurgielewcz, Ondocsin, Triola, Slubowski, Scordino, Edric Kirkman—they were all trying to learn. (44)

By packing lists of details into a single sentence—not only a guitar, for example, but a Martin guitar; not just a bed, but a brass, costly bed; not simply observing a room of students, but naming each individually—Hannah adds a dense texture of life to an otherwise ordinary moment. What might be humdrum descriptions become active and compelling. These inventories, and their specificity, also create a certain verisimilitude. Not only that, but some of the lists are genuinely funny tongue twisters, adding considerable humor to the text.

Hannah also employs repetitive language, such as parallel structure, in Ray. This structure—primarily reiterating subject pronouns over brief passages—creates cadence and syncopation that not only paces the narrative, but also provides vibrancy and emphasis. And like Ray’s frequent employment of southern rhetorical flourishes, this construction stems from southern preaching traditions. When words repeat, they gain strength in the character’s voice and shape his and the writing’s personality.

Take the following example, in which Ray talks about the character Mrs. Hooch:

She makes them listen to it while they eat. She quit cigarettes, but she’s worse than ever. She buys twenty pulp magazines a month and answers all the happiness and sexual quizzes in them. She won a Sony TV by coming in third on a mass-murderer quiz in Oui magazine. (28)

As he did with his inventories, Hannah bundles manifold detail into this passage. What’s different here is the delivery; these sentences have a staccato rhythm, anchored by the pronoun “she.” This emphatic repetition of subject/verb construction animates the scene, brightening up what is essentially tangential information and incorporating these details into a memorable package.

Consider the staccato rhythm of the pronoun/verb anchor “I’m” while reading the next excerpt:

I’m dreaming of this. I’m dreaming of the day when the Big C will be blown away. I’m dreaming of a world where men and women have stopped the war and where we will stroll as naked excellent couples under the eye of the sweet Lord again. I’m dreaming of the children whom I have hurt from being hurt and the hurt they learn, the cynicism, the precocious wit, the poo-poo, the slanted mouth, the supercilious eyebrow. (82)

Parallel construction merges with inventory to create a powerful, dense paragraph.

Moreover, Hannah’s use of parallel construction produces opportunity for narrative reversals: “Ray, you are a doctor and you are in a hospital in Mobile, except now you are a patient but you’re still me. Say what? You say you want to know who I am?” (3) Again, the power of the passage relies on the punctuation created by the multiple appearances of a subject pronoun. But over the course of these sentences, the emphatic subject shifts, from “you” to “I.” Hannah uses repetition here to introduce a dramatic reversal for his protagonist. Ray surprises himself, speaking the line, “Say what?” (itself another rhetorical flourish) and wonders who he is. Transformed from doctor to patient, he struggles to hold onto his first identity while seeking to explain and understand the second. It is a moment of self-confusion, yet also a plot device planned around the simple employment of parallel structure.

Finally, as an aside, this passage, when compared with the previously discussed opening line “Ray is thirty-three and he was born of decent religious parents, I say,” (3) illustrates Hannah’s technique for shifting viewpoints. Technically, point of view shifts are not an aspect of character voice, but they are a playful elaboration of the voice. Though Ray is a first-person text, the title character often breaks point of view and speaks to the reader in both the second- and third-person. These shifts are an example of playing with form, and they test reader expectations.

In the opening line, Hannah has Ray talk (first-person) about himself in the third-person. At first, it’s difficult to see that “I” and “Ray” are the same individual. In a second example, also cited earlier, Hannah has Ray talk (first-person) about himself in the second-person, that is, he addresses himself as “you.” Here, Hannah’s play with perspective introduces friction, electrifying the page. A prosaic self-introduction of the title character thus becomes a source of surprise and rhetorical excitement. The confusion also reflects the maddening character of Ray, himself an unlikeable hero with massive personal flaws. And the device is purposefully demanding, an almost litmus test to gauge reader interest. This immediate jolt, then, does well to announce Hannah’s flair for character voice, a voice the author uses—with flourishes, vocabulary fluctuation, inventories, and parallel construction—to shuttle the reader across the novel’s remaining 100-plus pages at breakneck pace, constructing engagement and conflict in scenes of both recklessness and serenity.

Benjamin Woodard writes for Numéro Cinq Magazine and is an editor for Atlas and Alice. His recent work has appeared in decomP, BuzzFeed Books, and The Bygone Bureau, among others. Find him at or @woodardwriter.

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