Steve Mullen: Goodbye Barry, with regrets

March 3, 2010 11:56:00 AM

Steve Mullen - [email protected]


A recent New York Times article, "Depression''s Upside," explores something known as rumination, the thought process that defines depression. Some people are more prone to rumination -- which essentially is stewing over things -- than others.  


I find myself ruminating a good bit. Some of us don''t have the ability to let go. For example, when left alone to think, I still find myself grappling over how I played -- or failed to play -- in a hockey game when I was 6 years old. Right or wrong, some regrets simmer to the surface quite easily. 


I felt such a tinge of regret when hearing about the death of Barry Hannah on Monday. Hannah, 67, was an often shocking, always enlightening, Mississippi short story writer and novelist. 


Hannah was one of my Big Three, along with Willie Morris and Larry Brown. They occupied the same revered places that onion, celery and green pepper might for a Cajun chef. They were my holy trinity of Mississippi writers. And with Hannah''s passing, they''re all gone. 


There are others writers to consider, to be sure. But my opinion of Hannah, Morris and Brown is shaped not only by the impact of their prose, but also the few personal, Forrest Gump-esque brushes I had with them.  


Hannah grew up in Clinton. He was long gone by the time I arrived in town, in 1977, at age 6 (with kid-league hockey games 1,800 miles in the rear-view mirror). While the city changed between his childhood and mine, the Clinton he described in his short story "Testimony of Pilot" rhymes with the one I remember: "Aluminum subdivisions, cigar boxes with four thin columns in front, thick as a hive. We got a turquoise water tank; got a shopping center, a monster Jitney Jungle, fifth-rate teenyboppers covering the place like ants." 


I found "Airships," the book that contained that particular short story, in the Clinton city library. I must have been 12 or so -- Hannah''s books are hardly rated G, so I kept it close, like a secret treasure. I remember being amazed that my little town, and other places I recognized, were described in a work of literature on a library shelf.  


I remember that old Jitney Jungle and the water tower well, and the latest generation of fifth-rate teenyboppers, though by the time I was sitting in Hannah''s short-story class at Ole Miss, the tower had been painted white and the Jitney Jungle had been replaced with a bigger, tan-stucco job. 


I always found it fascinating that the aircraft carrier mentioned in "Testimony of Pilot," was the Bonhomme Richard -- the same ship my father served on during Vietnam. I''ve been ruminating about how I failed to bring that up with him while his student. Like a 6-year-old finding his footing on ice, I found him nearly unapproachable. Another regret. Why didn''t I crack his door more often? 


Of the three, Morris was the most accessible -- I met him while editor of a little entertainment flyer in Oxford, my first job out of college. A reporter, photographer and I visited him one Saturday morning in his home in Jackson, at the time "New York Days" was being released. I didn''t need to be there, but wanted to meet him, and glommed along. I ran into him a few other times after that, at book signings and other things here and there. He remembered me, and took to calling me "the CEO," because I dressed up in a coat and tie for the interview. 


While Morris might have been the most accessible, I knew Larry Brown the best, though I wouldn''t claim he was more than an acquaintance. He was enjoying much critical success while I was news editor at The Oxford Eagle, and was great friends with a couple of the reporters, Jonny Miles and Jim Dees -- now accomplished writers themselves.  


I talked to Brown a good bit -- never about his writing really, more about what he was up to on his farm in Yocona, or about goings-on around town. I remember how he used to order up a drink at City Grocery: "Wild Turkey, with a little bit of Co''Cola in it." 


While I had a few treasured experiences with these guys, far richer are the experiences I still have reading their pages. 


That Times article suggests that depression has an upside. Yet I can''t help regret, and ruminate, that I didn''t make more of the chances I had to know my Big Three better, while they were still around. I can''t find an upside in that.

Steve Mullen is Managing Editor of The Dispatch.