When I think about Larry Brown’s work, I’m reminded of a night I spent with my wife in the emergency room in Hattiesburg, Mississippi. The examination rooms in the ER were clustered together and tiny, just big enough for a bed and a chair. A curtain provided the only privacy. In the next room a staff psychiatrist interviewed a man, and I couldn’t not listen to his story. The man, who I never saw, had been in the woods earlier that evening, sitting beside a fire and drinking a case of beer, until he saw what turned out to be a recurring hallucination—the woman in the red pickup. Running through the woods from her, he cut himself on saw-briars and tree branches. The doctor taking the man’s history ran down a checklist of drugs he might have taken, everything from Tylenol 3 to OxyContin, huffed gasoline to heroin. Despite a long list that included ways of getting high—creative, cheap, and potentially lethal—that I had never even heard of, the man had tried it all. His story ended with the sobbing revelation that when he was still a boy, he had shot and killed his father, although he pointed out that “they decided it was self-defense.”
The man in the ER could have walked off the pages of a Larry Brown novel.
Larry Brown, of Oxford, Mississippi, died in 2004. Only 53 years old, the former marine, factory worker, and firefighter erupted onto the literary world in the 1980s, though he never went to college beyond a creative writing class or two at Ole Miss. In part his writing, often compared to Southern Gothic realists Cormac McCarthy, Flannery O’Connor, and Harry Crews, with a dash of Raymond Carver and his mentor Barry Hannah thrown in, began writing while on duty with the Oxford fire department. His works, which include the short story collections Big Bad Love and Facing the Music, and his novels Dirty Work, Father and Son, Joe, and Fay capture the gritty realism of the contemporary South.
Brown writes about a contemporary South that many of us know little about. The “New South” has electricity and running water, cell phones are ubiquitous, and small towns support a McDonald’s and a WalMart, but pickups still fly streaming rebel flags and methamphetamine flows from Mexico, up I-30 and across Interstates 10, 20, and 40. Goodwill and church thrift stores recycle third and fourth hand clothes It’s not the South as portrayed in recent movies like Cookie’s Fortune and Steel Magnolias—a home for the quirky and eccentric, though mainly harmless Southerners. We love the food and the music, but we stay on the highways when we drive through the country, rather than on the gravel roads identified by green and white signs with odd-sounding personal names. There you find the not-well-hidden South, the South of Slingblade, Mud, and Winter’s Bone. Brown shows us this new South, going into the country where a different class of people still live, more or less unchanged, modern day Snopes.
Brown opens his novel Joe with a picture of a family walking along the blacktop in the early summer heat, heading toward “the dark green hills” where “maybe some hope of deep shade and cool water beckoned.” The two girls and the woman carry their possessions in paper sacks. The boy’s arms are “laden with shapeless clothes, rusted cooking utensils, mildewed quilts and blankets.” The father carries nothing but a red bandana as he shuffles down the road, his shoe sole flapping, until he trips and drunkenly collapses on the road. Not even sure where they are, other than Mississippi, the family make their way into the hills and camp out, sharing a supper of a can of beans and a tin of sardines. Eventually they settle in an abandoned, rotting shack, deep in the woods.
Brown knows these people as few writers know their characters. As a former Oxford, Mississippi firefighter, he spent countless nights listening to the stories of people who just watched their house burn, or who just walked away from a near fatal car crash. His characters frequent the faded gray wood plank bars in the fork between two gravel roads, miles from the nearest highway. They are always coming out of the hills, or heading into the hills, living on the fringes of the world most of us occupy.
Brown is a natural storyteller. He doesn’t ask us to feel sorry for his characters or their lot in life. He presents them without judgment or sentiment. He seems to be most interested in how they’re going to survive their circumstances. It’s almost as if he’s saying, I wonder what would happen if . . . ? Another novel, Fay, is an example of this. Using a throw-away character who got less than a paragraph in Joe, Brown presents the character Fay: “She came down out of the hills that were growing black with night, and in the dusty road her feet found small broken stones that made her wince. Alone for the first time in the world and full dark coming quickly . . . .” Seventeen years old and so lacking in education that when she finally sees a television show on African animals, she can honestly say she has never been able to envision what an elephant looks like. She comes down out of the hills one night, fleeing her father’s persistent advances, and heads south, for Biloxi, a place she’s only heard of. She wants to go there because she “heard it was nice down there. They supposed to have a beach and all.” Despite her lack of knowledge about the world though, Fay has an innate goodness about her, as well as the ability to make friends. Like Forrest Gump, she has a kind of luck that sees her through every situation, everything from being threatened with a pistol by the jealous ex-lover of a highway patrol officer who befriends her, to becoming the girlfriend of a strip club bouncer in Biloxi. By the end of the novel there is a wake of dead people who haven’t been as lucky as Fay, and she has moved on from Biloxi to New Orleans, surviving.
The South Brown presents is not necessarily an ugly world, or a hopeless world—just an honest world. He balances the world he writes about with good people as well. Brown’s characters work hard. They poison trees to prepare the land for tree farms, they fix hair in the beauty shop, they’re migrant workers and sheriffs and shade-tree mechanics. They grieve the death of children and look for something better for themselves. Good and bad happen to them. It’s obvious Brown cares for the people he writes about, lost and luckless though they may seem, and he gives them a sense of hope.