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Ray & Captain Maximus – Barry Hannah (1980 & 1985)

Much debate has been going on the past 10-15 years regarding Lish’s editing of Raymond Carver — was it to the point of co-authorship rather than editorship, given that some of those classic last sentences were hand-written in Carver’s manuscripts?

Carver was not the only one. Lish, based on the archives in Indiana University’s Lilly Library, did the same editing job with a number of other writers, from Rudy Wilson  (The Red Truck) to Barry Hannah.

Hannah purists won’t want to believe this; it’s true, and Hannah admitted this fact to Lish in letters, stating Lish turned his jumble of manuscripts into magic.  One reason Hannah needed such help was that he was dealing with alcohol and cocaine abuse in the late 1970s-early 1980s.

Okay, so we labeled this blog “forgotten and ignored” books, and Hannah’s were hardly that…we changed our mind because we can…and we would be remiss to not include Hannah, Carver, et al.

Ray is one of our favorite iconoclastic novels, or novellas. We can open Ray up anytime anywhere and enjoy the wonderful prose inside this quirky story.  The book’s journey from idea to print was a long and difficult one.

All information is based on Lish’s archives, so don’t comment, “That’s not true!” Go to the archives and see for yourself.

Knopf paid in excess of $30,000 as an advance for Hannah’s next book, whatever that was to be. Airships was a success critically and financially and they wanted a follow-up on that good fortune (his two previous novels with Viking did not sell well, despite one winning the Faulkner award).

The next book was possibly The Tennis Handsome. Hannah had originally contracted it with Lippincott as a biography of a famous tennis player, but Hannah could not find the story, and he had no desire to write a biography; he signed the contract because he needed money. Like Carver, Hannah was in constant need of cash; royalties and teaching gigs didn’t cut it.

Hannah turned the book into a work of fiction about the ups and downs of a tennis pro. Both Lish and Hannah ultimately felt that The Tennis Handsome wasn’t ready and needed much more work.  Hannah was working on something he called Dr. Ray and was excited about it.

Lish’s archives contain about 300 manuscript pages, often single-spaced, of Ray, composed on a manual typewriter with pages stained with beer and coffee (we could still smell the stale beer on them).  Basically, the manuscript is  a mess: no cohesive plot, strange asides (“Gordon Lish is the fucking best editor”) and repetitive scenes.  There is a short story version too.

The process took years. Lish did for Ray what max Perkins did for Thomas Wolfe’s jumble of pages: he sorted things out and sliced and put together a whole.  The archives contain the final product done up by a professional typist: 125 pages of neat prose, about 25,000 words whittled from what was probably 100,000.

But a beautiful 25,000 words.

Almost to Hannah’s surprise, Ray was received by the critics and his readers with great enthusiasm.

Lish appears in the narrative as the Confederate leader, Captain Gordon. “Sabres!”

Some have wondered if Ray is a nod to Raymond Carver. Possibly. Hannah taught Carver in his classes and Carver taught Airships in his classes.

One question must be posed: what was it with Lish and alcoholic writers whose lives were a post-tsunami wasteland? Did he take advantage of this to impose his editorial theories of minimalism?

Filmmaker Robert Altman read Ray and said, “This guy is crazier than I am!”  Altman wanted Hannah to writ him a movie and Hannah spent a good half year at Altman’s Malibu mansion; the outcome was a treatment, “Power and Light,” later published as a 40 page story in Hannah’s next book, Captain Maximus, a volume shorter than Ray by 11 pages.

Hannah’s next project was a novel he had in mind called Maximum Ned. Again, there are many pages, false starts, two short story versions, and the end product was finally, after years, the 9age story, “Ride, Fly, Penetrate, Loiter,” which was longer in The Georgia Review version — interesting, Lish was cutting back words and sentences and changing titles (as he did with Carver) up to the final galley stage.

The Tennis Handsome came next, and then Hannah wanted to put together a collection called Never Die, which eventually became the Seymour Lawrence/Dutton book, Never Die, and the Atlantic Monthly book, edited by Gary Fisketjon, Bats Out of Hell.

It is unknown why Hannah left Knopf and Lish — possibly more money, as Seymour Lawrence had the power to woo away writers like Kurt Vonnegut, Robert Parker, and Richard Brautigan away from their publishers, also with the promise that their books would not be “edited” or forced to conform to the market.

We  suggest that Hannah continued to work with Lish for the Lawrence titles: Hey, Jack!, Boomerang, and Never Die are short and similar to Ray and Captain Maximus. He did eventually wean off Lish, evident with his last novel, Yonder Stands Your Orphan, edited by Moregan Entrekin at Grove.

There is much more to discuss, such as the relationship between Hannah and Lish, Amy Hempel’s wonderful profile of Hannah in Vanity Fair, Hannah’s article on motorcycle riding in Playboy, written while he was working on Captain Maximus.

For a good interviewsee the one conducted by Larry McCaffery and Sinda Gregory in their book Anything Can Happen.  Hannah showed up to the interview in a limousine — seems his brother owned a limo.  Apparently, Hannah was three sheets to the wind when he arrived but he did give a great, articulate interview. In a letter to Lish, when Hannah flew back from San Diego, where the interview took place, he and his son were arrested for drunk driving.  Hannah found some irony in it all.

NOTE: A longer, detailed and more critical version of this post, at 10,000 words, will appear in a 2012 issue of Critique: Studies in Contemporary Fiction.

Also: See Michael Hemmingson’s collection, Pictures of Houses with Water Damage, dedicated to the memory of Barry Hannah.


4 responses »

  1. vintagesleazepaperbacks

    BOOMERANG is one of our fave Hannahs, we go bannanas for these kind of Hannahs.

  2. But do you go grapes for apes?

  3. One of my fondest memories from Knopf was taking changes from Mr. Hannah over the phone for Q. I had read the galleys of the story and had flagged a few items in anticipation. Mr. H. was not in good condition when he phoned but he blew away my flags like so much nonsense. His mastery of grammar and, indeed, his own style was well beyond the powers of anyone in sight.


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