Aaron Gilbreath: The Last Book I Loved, Ray

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I used to think I was somewhat daring as a reader, but apparently I was not. After reading Barry Hannah’s story collection Airships, I bought five of his other books in a flurry of excitement; then they sat there on my shelf. For three and a half years I plucked volume after volume from my crowded library, pecking around Hannah’s titles like a chicken avoiding the pebbles mixed in with the seed. Part of me yearned to delve in Geronimo Rex and Bats Out of Hell, but they intimidated me. The memory of reading Airships felt much like my body felt following a strenuous hike: elated from the invigorating challenge, yet too fatigued to do anything but rest. Why all the fuss? The language.

Most people with whom I speak about Hannah mention his language: how energetic and wild it is, this rushing river force of nature, how it’s sometimes basackwards, sometimes bizarre, and always intriguing. Even the reviews point to this: “[Hannah has] poetry in pulses and witty hot wires in his sentences;” “You need a fresh lingo to do justice to this much magic, mystery, and hilarity;” “His style is exuberant, impressionistic, and highly compressed.” When I decided that my long “rest” was over, I pulled Hannah’s Ray from shelf. The novel was only one hundred and thirteen pages, which got me thinking: was Ray this slim because you had to reread each paragraph so many times to decode the dense, pyrotechnic language that it took the same amount of time to finish as a three hundred page novel? The forces of nature can pack a solar system’s worth of matter into a micron of space inside a black hole. Hannah seemed similarly capable. What if I couldn’t get through Ray because I couldn’t make sense of it? Or worse, what if once I read it, I still didn’t understand it, and I spent the rest of my life feeling like such a dim-wit that the only text I felt qualified to read forever after was the ingredient list on microwave dinners? Then what would I tell people who talked about Hannah?

I was being a baby.

Ray is incredible.

The whole book is a witty hot wire. It lashed and sparked from start to finish. It flipped itself over and over while spraying its searing contents before coming to an abrupt, fitful halt after spending one exciting night of life with me on my back porch under the moon. The language was sometimes mystifying, but it never confounded me as feared. There was always magic in it, not bewilderment. Tight and explosive, Hannah pulls none of the smoke-and-mirrors trickery of long-winded show-offs or the muddying-your-waters-to-appear-deep routine of phony poets. Simply put, his prose is unique. And not unique in the way some Southerner’s verb tenses and extra prepositions sound to a Yankee ear, like when someone says, “One night Charlie was waked up.” Hannah’s lines strike as jarring in their singularity because, at their best, they are almost a whole new way of seeing the world.

Ray reminded me that I like to work while reading. I feel satisfied when books engage me so thoroughly that they require I do a good deal of mental exercise to figure them out. When authors hand me too many answers or render their prose too translucent, I don’t feel talked down to, but the act of reading certainly isn’t as fulfilling. So maybe this means that I loved Ray both for the thrill of experiencing its language and because it helped me realize that I’m not as dim-witted as I often feel I am, like when I ask a garage attendant what the rates are and he points to a sign inches from my face. Or like the time I got on the wrong subway and ended up in Brooklyn instead of Manhattan. Which is to say, I am relieved that I am capable of doing and enjoying the heavy lifting authors demand of us readers. Next up: Geronimo Rex.


Aaron Gilbreath has written essays, many about music, for The New York Times, Paris Review, Tin House, Black Warrior Review, Kenyon Review, Brick, The Threepenny Review, AGNI, Conjunctions, Hotel Amerika, and Cincinnati Review, and written articles for Oxford American, Virginia Quarterly Review and Yeti. Currently at work on a book of travel writing set in Canada, he sells tea in Portland, Oregon and blogs about music, food and miscellany at http://aarongilbreath.wordpress.com. More from this author →