Facing the Music, 1987–1989
Facing the Music, 1987–1989
Abstract and Keywords
This chapter focuses on the publication of Brown’s first few stories, which won him an audience nationwide as well as in Mississippi. It tells the story of how Brown was invited to read at Yoknapatawpha County Arts Festival hosted by the Center for Southern Studies at Ole Miss. Glennray Tutor, an Oxford artist whom Brown had met earlier, attended the public reading. Tutor believed that Brown pursued their friendship because he wanted someone from a similar background with whom he could discuss the nature of artistic expression. The connection between the two men was not merely artistic but also social. Tutor and his son, Zach, often fished with Larry, and Tutor and his first wife, Barb, became frequent visitors to the Brown home in Yocona. Tutor also became one of Brown’s correspondents.
The publication of his first few stories won Brown an audience not only nationwide but also in Mississippi. In late 1986, as he recalled in an unpublished interview, Richard Howorth’s sister-in-law, Mary Hartwell Howorth, “contacted me and asked me to read” at Yoknapa-tawpha County Arts Festival hosted by the Center for Southern Studies at Ole Miss (Brown Collections). The event was probably his first public reading in Oxford, and according to Brown, “The date I believe is Nov. 8th. I’m gonna be kind of juggling time that night. I’m working at the fire station that day, and I think it’s supposed to start around 7, so I’ve gotta take off that night at 7, and try to get up to the courthouse and settled in time” (Brown Collections). Glennray Tutor, an Oxford artist whom Brown had met earlier, attended the reading. Tutor remembered that the two men talked and then “somehow we just began hanging out with each other.” Tutor believes that Brown pursued their friendship because he wanted someone from a similar background with whom he could discuss the nature of artistic expression: “It’s almost a magic thing that happens—I mean, how somebody like Larry, how somebody like me, somebody like Elvis Presley can come out of complete cultural impoverishment, and yet there’s some kind of magic starlight inside of them that leads them into artistic endeavor. … Just think about the enormous energy or effort required of a person to realize they’ve got something, a creative gift. The effort required to go ahead and do something.” Brown put up a print of one of Tutor’s works “over my typewriter. My motivation wall. Alongside Barry Hannah, Cormac McCarthy, Jack Butler” (Tutor Papers).
The connection between the two men was not merely artistic but (p.61) also social. Tutor and his son, Zach, often fished with Larry, and Tutor and his first wife, Barb, became frequent visitors to the Brown home in Yocona. Tutor also became one of Brown’s correspondents.
At the festival, Brown read “Facing the Music” in what Tutor described as “an unusual setting for a reading, the Courthouse, and I remember that it was pouring rain that day. All this provided a striking backdrop for what I felt was a very powerful reading” (Ravenel, “Two” 4). Barry Hannah introduced Brown, who read a paragraph from Raymond Carver’s introduction to the 1986 edition of Best American Short Stories, which contained “Facing the Music.” Before reading the story itself, Brown also told listeners that “Facing the Music” had been “rejected seven times before it was accepted. … There was a time when I began to wonder if it would ever be published, but I’m lucky to have friends who support me, and who read the story and believed in it. One of those friends is Richard Howorth, and this story is dedicated to him” (Brown Collections).
During 1986, Brown was promoted to the rank of captain in the Oxford Fire Department. By 1988 and 1989, he had to work only “ten shift days a month” and found it “wonderful to finally have those other twenty days a month to write” (LS 1). But “there was always the Fire Department; every third day there was always the Fire Department to go to, that was just regular clockwork” (RS). He continued to read during his off time and began to keep a journal at the station. Though his colleagues jokingly called him “Faulkner” (Holland B3), they were also “pretty excited” about his success: “The boys at the fire department and my family have been knowing about it for years because I’ve been doing it for so long. … [T]hey’re glad to see me finally break on through. So, they’re excited, they’re happy for me. I’ve got a lot of people pulling for me” (Pettus, “Interview” 9). In October 1987, Brown reported that station gossip was “that I got a $25,000 advance and am going to make $100,000 the first year, and I’m going to quit in just a few more days. I know all the lieutenants are hoping it’s so. They all want my job” (LB to SR, October 1987, Algonquin Files).
Beginning in about 1987, Larry, Mary Annie, and Larry’s mother, Leona Barlow Brown, operated a small store in Tula. Larry described the business as “just a little country store in a little country (p.62) community. … There’s farm land all around here, woods all around, so there’s a lot of logging going on too. … Tula Grocery, heaps of ham and cheese and baloney sliced, … money loaned, checks cashed” (LB to SR, Algonquin Files). The store also served the community as a post office, with Leona Brown as postmistress. The store became an enormous burden to Larry, particularly after he committed to writing, and by the end of 1988, he had given it up, writing to Shannon Ravenel, “I got about two truckloads of weight off my head getting rid of the store. … I’m free again. I’ll never put myself in a situation like that again” (Algonquin Files). Brown apparently paid off the forty-five hundred dollars he owed on the store and then turned operations over to his mother (Edgerton Papers). Leona Brown remembered, “He handed me the keys one day and said, ‘Mama, I’m outta here.’ I guess he thought he had it made.”
Despite Larry Brown’s nonliterary activities and Ravenel’s advice that Brown finish and publish a novel before launching a collection of short stories, Facing the Music became Brown’s first published volume when Algonquin released it in the fall of 1988. According to Ravenel, “Ultimately, another fan of Larry’s, Dudley Jhanke, who was at that time doing Algonquin’s marketing, said, in essence, to hell with conventional wisdom about introducing new writers with novels. These stories are too strong to keep in manuscript” (“Go, Little Book” 45). Before the collection came out, two more of the stories included in it were published in other venues. “Kubuku Rides (This Is It)” appeared in the Greensboro Review in 1988 and received the journal’s annual prize for fiction; the story was also included in the 1989 edition of Best American Short Stories. And “Samaritans” was published in the St. Andrews Review in 1988. Although Ravenel tried to get popular magazines such as the Atlantic and Playboy to accept Brown’s stories and thus increase the collection’s potential audience, editors at the magazines “were taken with the strength of Brown’s writing” but found his stories “‘not quite right for our magazine[s].’ Not quite cheerful enough, is what [they] meant” (“Go, Little Book” 46).
With publication of Facing the Music set for June 1988, Algonquin launched a promotional campaign. Ravenel solicited and obtained (p.63) what she called “a truly remarkable set of endorsements from Jack Butler, Harry Crews, Ellen Douglas, Barry Hannah and Willie Morris” (“Go, Little Book” 46). Louis Rubin, who cofounded Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill with Ravenel, advertised the collection at the University of Mississippi’s 1987 Faulkner Conference, and Ravenel took several of Brown’s stories to a Southeastern Booksellers Association meeting in Atlanta, where Clyde Edgerton and Jill McCorkle read them. Ravenel wrote to Brown on 15 September 1987, “Everybody talked about how powerful a writer you are. … You would have been very proud. I was” (Algonquin Files). Algonquin publicist Mimi Fountain sent numerous reviewers the book’s galleys or the bound volume, “shamelessly [using] the fireman-turned-writer hook. And it worked. Facing the Music received more than thirty national reviews” (“Go, Little Book” 46). The first published assessment appeared in the Kirkus Review and was quoted on the book jacket: the reviewer called the stories “raw and gritty” and declared the appearance of Brown’s work “one of the more exciting debuts of recent memory.”
In October 1987, Brown received the contract to have Algonquin publish a collection of ten of his stories. Brown was to get a two-thousand-dollar advance, 10 percent royalties on the first five thousand copies sold, 12.5 percent on the next five thousand copies, and 15 percent on all further copies sold. For Brown, the contract represented “a dream come true. A lot of people around Oxford are glad and happy for me, and even out here in the nether regions some people are, like, wow. My oldest boy is so proud of me. Mary Annie’s scared of it (success or recognition or whatever’s coming), but I’m not” (LB to SR, Algonquin Files). Brown suggested that the collection be titled Facing the Music because “most of the characters are having to face something, the fireman, Mr. P., Frank in the bar, Angel, the guy breaking up with his girl” (LB to SR, Algonquin Files). Ravenel immediately approved of the idea, writing to Brown, “It’s what I wanted all along, but I didn’t want to push” (Algonquin Files). Brown signed and returned the contract on 29 October (Algonquin Files). Five months later, Brown sent Ravenel a photograph to be used on the volume’s back cover, explaining, “This is me. I hope you like the picture. … This was taken on the (p.64) balcony at Square Books. Mary Annie watched from the window of her office in the courthouse, top window, far right. Photo credit: Jack Cofield” (Algonquin Files).
On 27 June 1988, the Oxford Eagle published a front-page story on the publication of Facing the Music. The article’s author, Nina Goolsby, quoted novelist Ellen Douglas, who had taught Brown at Ole Miss, lauding his “unerring comic sense, … sensitive ear for talk, … unsentimental commitment to his characters and, above all, … intimate, ruthless, loving connection with the world.” According to Hannah, Brown “rediscovers real stuff, like great writers do. He’s been out there, and reports it beautifully. He is a master.” And Morris declared Brown’s work “direct, powerful, and singularly honest” (1).
Brown was thrilled by the Goolsby’s article, writing to Ravenel, “I’m about to get a little recognition in the local paper. I can’t believe it after all this time. This is the Oxford Eagle. … [T]he editor and owner [is] Nina Goolsby. … She called over here this morning and woke Mary Annie up having a fit for my picture so she could run the press release in the paper tomorrow. … That local publicity will be good, could help us sell some more books. I went up to her house and she came to the door in her housecoat and curlers—‘Oh Lord don’t look at me!’— just thrilled to death. So I’ll be famous locally tomorrow” (Algonquin Files).
Brown also spent his time during 1987 and 1988 working on a play, ultimately titled Wings, that he had written for a 1985 contest at Ole Miss. Brown “took some vacation time … and locked myself in a room for seven days and wrote it. I doubt if it even got a complete reading [by contest judges] because it was from a local writer. I just said so much for that; I didn’t know anyplace else to send it.” Two years later, however, Oxford’s Hoka Theater began staging plays and “invited submissions from local writers. I don’t know how many scripts they got but they picked mine. It just needed some work. It had some flaws that needed to be changed and corrected” (LB to SR. Algonquin Files). Plans to stage the play fell through, however. Brown also sent the play to literary agent Nat Sobel, who returned it with the comment, “There’s nothing wrong with the writing in WINGS, but I think you have a way to go as a dramatist in making this work. There are no surprises to (p.65) this rather straightforward story and nearly all the really dramatic moments (except for the accidental killing) happen off-stage” (Sobel to LB, August 1987, Brown Collections). In January 1991, Brown learned that Wings would be published in Mississippi Writers: An Anthology, edited by Dorothy Abbott, telling Edgerton, “My old play’s going to get published in this Mississippi anthology thing. I corrected the proofs yesterday, going to mail them off tomorrow. I thought they were only going to publish one act, but they’re doing the whole thing. It’s probably a little inferior to most of my work. It’s five years old. But I still like parts of it. I’m not making anything off it. Maybe somebody will stage it one of these days” (Edgerton Papers). Despite Brown’s hopes, however, the play was never produced.
In January 1988, Brown read “Samaritans” at Ole Miss, the prospect of which “pretty much scared” him “shitless. I’ve been taping myself and timing myself and all that, but they’re going to tape me, too, so it’s scary. But it is an honor, and I can’t turn it down. It also might sell some books for us” (LB to SR, Algonquin Files). Two months later, Brown did another reading in one of William Ferris’s classes at the university: Ferris “got up and made this five minute spiel about the prodigy I was and how proud of me they were and what I’d published and what I was going to publish and then introduced me as Larry Farmer. Jesus, Hurt me to my soul. I just went on and did it. But if he pulls some shit like that at the Faulkner conference, I’ll walk out. After telling them what my name is. I guess he was thinking about Farmer Brown, I don’t know. Christ, I don’t blame you for laughing. I’d probably laugh too if it happened to somebody other than me” (LB to SR, Algonquin Files). Brown found no need to walk out of the 1988 Faulkner Conference, where he read “Samaritans” and “Old Frank and Jesus” on 3 August. He was introduced by Rubin, who, Brown told Ravenel, “said some nice things about me. And you, too. He gave you all the credit. Accurately” (LB to SR, Algonquin Files). Though Brown feared that some “imprudent academic” would make him look like a “dumbass,” he received “two rounds of thunderous applause” (LB to SR, Algonquin Files).
The next day, Brown held his first book signing, at Oxford’s Square Books. According to Susie James, writing in Mississippi magazine, a (p.66) state publication, “the writer sat at one of the tables in the café upstairs, signing books and receiving encouragement from his mother, Leona Brown, and his wife, Mary Annie” (80). One of those in attendance at the signing was John Grisham, a Southaven, Mississippi, lawyer who had just written his first novel, A Time to Kill. Grisham recalled that he and a friend, Bill Ballard, frequently traveled to Oxford to visit Rowan Oak and Square Books, and “during one of our road trips, we just happened to be at the bookstore when Larry was publishing Facing the Music. … There was a big, huge crowd, and it was very, very hot. … There was a lot of excitement and driving home and for a couple of days after that, I found that [experience] to be very, very inspirational, because here was a guy who had a dream, and he was determined to write, and he had written far more than I had.” On another occasion, Richard Howorth recalled that Grisham, Brown, and several other writers were “signing books at the same time, and Larry had a long line of people to get to sign his books, [but] nobody was at [Grisham’s table]. And Larry said to John, ‘Don’t worry—I know what you’re going through. It’ll be better next time,’ or something like that.” The two writers continued to encourage each other. On 8 August 1989, Grisham wrote to Brown, “I enjoyed reading Facing the Music and I look forward to reading Dirty Work. I hope you sell a million copies. And if you do, and if I sell a million copies of A Time to Kill, then maybe we can retire to the balcony at Square Books and spend our time drinking cold beer, watching co-eds, and talking about future books” (Brown Collections). Though A Time to Kill did not sell well, Doubleday published Grisham’s second novel, The Firm, in 1990; even before the book was released, Paramount Pictures purchased the film rights. Learning of Grisham’s good fortune early in the year, Brown wrote to Clyde Edgerton, “A guy I know, John Grisham, who published his first novel last year, who lives in Southaven, MS, just sold his second unpublished draft to Paramount for $600,000. … Can you imagine? The lucky pup” (Edgerton Papers). According to Howorth, in the year between the writing of A Time to Kill and the writing of The Firm, Grisham and his wife, Renee, “studied methodically the best-seller lists … to kind of see what made books best sellers. They probably made a judgment about where their particular niche was in the best-seller market.” Both men “started out (p.67) trying to make money by writing books, but John went about it in a much more businesslike fashion, whereas Larry … became a captive of literature, a ‘fool for literature.’” Lisa Howorth remembered that people in Oxford were “happy for that to happen to John, too, but it wasn’t quite the same as Larry, the homeboy from out in the country making it.” The two writers began their careers with opposite motivations: Grisham looked to achieve success as a literary writer, while Brown wanted to make money. In effect, they switched positions, with Grisham becoming an enormous popular success and Brown becoming a literary novelist.
Brown and Grisham maintained a casual relationship, often appearing together at Oxford literary functions. Both authors read at the High Cotton Writers’ Conference at Ole Miss in June 1991, and they were the headline speakers at the Living South Festivals held in June 1992 and 1993 and participants in the first Oxford Conference for the Book the following April. Stephen King came to Mississippi to participate in the conference, and Larry and Mary Annie Brown attended a dinner Grisham hosted for King. Grisham and Brown joined Hannah and Morris in reading at Robert Khayat’s installation as the University of Mississippi’s chancellor in 1996. Brown provided the keynote address at the dedication of the Oxford–Lafayette County Library on 13 April 1997, but a quotation from Grisham graced the cover of the program: “A public library is a building that indicates what a community thinks of itself.”
Brown had mixed feelings about Grisham, and many of their mutual acquaintances believe that Brown was somewhat jealous of Grisham’s huge financial and Hollywood success. In 1991, Brown told Edgerton about a French visitor to Oxford who asked him how “it felt to be rich and famous. I said Go ask John Grisham” (Edgerton Papers). Four years later, Brown was somewhat annoyed when Wayne Pond at the National Humanities Center in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, asked him to try to persuade Grisham to do an interview in the Soundings series: “That’s amusing. Like I’ve got his phone number or some way to get in touch with him. You don’t get in touch with him. He gets in touch with you. If he wants to” (LB to JM, Brown Collections). According to Brown’s son, Billy Ray, however, his father did not “have any bitterness (p.68) that I know toward anybody, especially anybody else writing.” In contrast, Brown’s surrogate son, Jonathan Miles, believes that Brown was jealous of Grisham’s success, as is indicated by a song, “Come Back Home, Johnny Grisham,” that Brown wrote in 1998. According to another of Brown’s friends, Tom Rankin, Brown “would sing [the song] late at night, only to me, or to Jonny [Miles]. He didn’t want to hurt John Grisham’s feelings, [but], [i]t was as close as you get to Larry’s parody of Grisham’s life.”
Grisham has never made any public statements showing anything but respect and admiration for Brown. Grisham describes his fellow author as “always likeable because there was no pretension. He was a country boy, and for that reason people may have discounted him at some point. But when you read his stuff, you realized there was a lot of talent there but also the perseverance, the determination. … Larry was a sweet guy without a mean bone in his body. There was not a pretentious bone. He always felt comfortable in his own skin. He never tried to become somebody else, and that was what was so endearing about him.” On one occasion when Grisham was visiting New York City in the mid-1990s, after several of his books had been made into movies, a store clerk asked him, “‘Where you from?’ I said, ‘Oxford, Mississippi.’ She said, ‘My favorite writer’s from Oxford, Mississippi.’ I kind of … held my breath and I said, ‘Well, who’s that?’ And she said, ‘Larry Brown, of course.’ I burst out laughing.”
In late September 1988, the weekend before Facing the Music’s official release, Larry and Mary Annie Brown traveled to Nashville, Tennessee, for the annual meeting of the Southeastern Booksellers Association. Ravenel advised the author that he did not need to dress up for the occasion, since writers wore pretty much whatever they wanted: Brown bought new cowboy boots in celebration of the event (SR to LB, LB to SR, Algonquin Files). Brown participated in an autograph session at the Opryland Hotel and gave a reading and told Ravenel that he and his wife “had a great time in Nashville. Mary Annie was so happy. She loves to feel included in all this stuff. Thanks for being so nice to her, for making her feel so good” (Algonquin Files).
The Nashville conference was also significant because it was where Brown met Clyde Edgerton, who would soon become his closest literary (p.69) friend. Shortly after returning home, Brown wrote to Ravenel to express his excitement about his new acquaintance: “It was sure fine meeting Clyde. When he comes to Oxford, I hope he’s got time to come out and stay with us some. I want to cook him some fried catfish and some boiled shrimp. And I’m supposed to take him to the Hipp cemetery. I hope it doesn’t rain and muddy up the roads before then. No way we’ll make it up there if it does. He is a really nice guy” (Algonquin Files). Edgerton recalled that even before the conference, he had “read the story ‘Facing the Music’ and knew he was an extraordinarily talented writer.” Seated next to each other at a dinner, the two men “realized without saying it I suppose that our backgrounds of hunting and fishing as kids in the south was something we shared—our mutual love of southern land and food and our raised eyebrows at some things modern.” In Edgerton’s memory, Brown then called to ask “how to get the blinking red light to go out on his [hotel] phone, and I recall that it was a serious phone call but the call turned into a kind of pointed satire of things ‘hotelish.’ He remembers me telling him not to eat the outsides of cheese balls because they were plastic. We realized I suppose without saying it that we shared a kind of humor in the process, a kind of dark humor in some cases. We didn’t talk about it of course. We didn’t say ‘We share a kind of dark humor,’ but we did laugh about things right much, little stories, incidents, etc., from then on.”
Brown and Edgerton were indeed much alike, although Edgerton had much more formal education, including a master’s and a doctorate in English from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Algonquin had published Edgerton’s novels, Raney (1985) and Walking across Egypt (1987), just before Ravenel discovered Brown’s writing, so Edgerton could both empathize with Brown and offer advice about adapting to his new role as writer. Brown looked up to Edgerton, usually addressing him as “Big Brother” or “Unc”; Edgerton often called Brown “Little Brother.” In March 1990, Brown described Edgerton as “one of the few people I know who’s got his head on straight” and said, “I listen to you more than I do anybody” (Edgerton Papers). Brown visited Edgerton in Durham, where the two men went flying in Edgerton’s plane and fishing, and Edgerton traveled to Brown’s home in Tula, where “Larry would entertain me by taking me to ride in the (p.70) truck for beer drinking and listening to music and talking, just talking, or just riding without a whole lot of talking, more or less soaking in the country, the land and trees and creeks and an unspoken imagining of the spirits in the trees and land and what all the animals might be doing, what all sorts of adventures were there for anybody willing to take it all on in some fun way, mainly fishing or hunting. … Our conversations were usually about what was at hand in front of us: fish, his cabin, the pond.” Nevertheless, according to Edgerton, their relationship “was more a friendship through letter writing than hanging out.”
The Algonquin connection also brought Brown relationships with other authors whose works the press was publishing, including Jill Mc-Corkle, Kaye Gibbons, and Lewis Nordan, though he never developed the close friendships with them that he maintained with Edgerton. McCorkle recalled a “wonderful company of … writers being launched by Algonquin” (“In the Company” 1) during the late 1980s and early 1990s. Though she was not as close to Brown as Tom Rankin and Edgerton became, “being Algonquin writers together in those early years was kind of like being related and there was an automatic connection.” McCorkle “admired [Brown] tremendously, both the work on the page and the man who had worked so hard to get himself there.” Brown often appeared at conferences with both McCorkle and Gibbons, and he invited both women to participate in his Lila Wallace Reading Series in Oxford. He read and enjoyed Ellen Foster, telling Ravenel that Gibbons was “a very good writer. The voice is wonderful, so authentic and funny and sad. A mighty brave little girl” (Algonquin Files). The feeling was mutual: in 2006, Gibbons told Mike Segretto that “Larry Brown’s work deserves the widest possible audience. He was incapable of writing a weak sentence.”
Brown also formed a friendship with Tim McLaurin, one of the first contemporary southern writers Brown met through his connection with Square Books. Brown was still working at the Oxford Fire Department when McLaurin came to town in September 1988 to read from his first novel, The Acorn Plan. Brown “was drinking coffee with some of my partners at our kitchen table, and he walked in wearing jeans and a jean jacket, and some kind of feed store cap. He said he was looking for Larry Brown. He was a husky guy with a thick brown (p.71) mustache, and he had a country accent that sounded kind of like mine. … I invited him to sit down and have a cup of coffee with me, which he did. Later I … drove him down to William Faulkner’s house, and from that day forward we were friends” (“Remembering”). Soon after returning home to North Carolina, McLaurin wrote to Brown that he “enjoyed meeting you last week in Oxford. … I got a copy of your book in Memphis and read it in one night. It knocked me out. I mean it. Your book crackles with energy, and it is written beautifully. The stories made me look at myself, and at many people I know, and kept me thinking” (Brown Collections).
Early the following year, McLaurin was diagnosed with a rare form of cancer, multiple myeloma. Brown had written a blurb for McLaurin’s new novel, Woodrow’s Trumpet; after seeing the published volume, Brown called McLaurin to offer congratulations but instead learned of his illness. The news “shocked” Brown, and he told a mutual friend, Jake Mills, “I don’t know how much good words are going to do him but I’m going to try and write a letter with careful words to at least let him know I’m thinking about him and worrying about him” (Brown Collections). Brown and McLaurin remained in touch, and in June 1990, while recovering from a bone marrow transplant, McLaurin wrote that a recent letter from Brown “was the funniest thing I’ve read in a long time. You were writing at 1:30 in the morning while steadily nursing a fifth of Crown Royal. You had your music on and were flying right after having driven the back roads with beer and schnapps. In the middle of one serious paragraph, you stopped dead sentence and wrote, ‘I love me some music’” (Brown Collections). The friendship endured until McLaurin’s death in 2002.
During this period, Brown also met another up-and-coming writer, Rick Bass, a petroleum engineer who had produced two works of nonfiction before publishing his first collection of short stories, The Watch, in early 1989. Bass came to Oxford to read from the collection, but Brown was on duty at the fire department and could manage only brief visits with Bass between calls. Brown later returned “to the bookstore just as Bass was getting ready to leave.” Brown “burst in and he seemed real glad to see me. We got us a mutual admiration society going right quick. I bought one of his books and he signed it real nicely for me. (p.72) I didn’t get to talk to him long. But he’s a very nice guy” (Edgerton Papers). In July of that year, the two met again when Bass returned to Oxford to read from his nonfiction book, Oil Notes, and they subsequently maintained their friendship through correspondence and visits whenever Bass was in Oxford. According to Bass,
Usually we went out to his “cool pad,” other times hung out in his house, other times to the pond at Tula. Sometimes at parties in town, occasionally at the Howorths, and often, riding around in the dusk. Sometimes to eat catfish, and often to have dinner at Ajax or City Grocery Bar, always loud and crowded. In the bars a switch would go on, he would be supported and hobnobbing would surround him, he would be swarmed. He would be a little apologetic because it disrupted our private time but it was good for him and he liked it; he’d be a little sheepish but he would breathe it in like the cigarettes he smoked. He would inhale it and be comforted by that attention. And it was certainly his due. Those who swarmed him took something away, as well—something vital and wild. He knew it, they knew it. It was very interesting.
Facing the Music was officially published on 30 September 1988. The front cover of the first edition features blurbs by Jack Butler and Brown’s idol, Harry Crews, while the back cover bears comments from Ellen Douglas, Barry Hannah, and Willie Morris as well as the photograph of Brown standing on the balcony of Square Books. The original hardback version quickly sold between three and four thousand copies (Algonquin Files).
Brown initially promoted the book with readings in other Mississippi cities, including Amory, Columbus, and Jackson, and described some of the experience in a letter to Ravenel:
I read “Kubuku Rides” at Amory, mostly to a bunch of grayhaired ladies. Freaked a few of em, I guess. They paid me $200 to read to about 20 people. [Columbus] went really well. I read “Old Frank and Jesus” to about 130 students. Plus [Mary Annie] and I spent the night before with the president of [the Mississippi University for Women] and his wife. They were real nice. Gave us the whole top floor of their house. (p.73) They even baked a cake with the cover of FACING THE MUSIC reproduced in icing. I told them it was about the nicest thing anybody’d done for me. Know how many copies of my book they had in the whole town for sale? 2. It was a good reading, though. They beat their hands silly. I was awed by the response. (Algonquin Files)
When Brown read at Lemuria Books in Jackson on 28 October, he was “underwhelmed at the response. But,” he reported, bookstore owner John Evans “has sold about 70 of the 100 he ordered, so I was happy” (LB to JM, Brown Collections).
Brown’s promotional efforts on behalf of Facing the Music were limited because he was still working at the Oxford Fire Department, he was concentrating on completing Dirty Work, and he had already become reluctant to travel to promote his books. In April 1989, however, he went to Chattanooga, Tennessee, for the Biennial Conference on Southern Literature, which sought in part to advance the work of new southern writers. The experience was novel for Brown, who at thirty-seven years old had traveled little outside Mississippi except while he was in the marines; in addition, Brown’s participation earned him twenty-five hundred dollars plus expenses from the Chattanooga Arts Council (Brown Collections). On 8 April, Brown gave a talk, “A Late Start,” and read from the manuscript of Dirty Work. Edgerton later wrote to Brown, “Your reading and talk were something—both. You knocked them and me dead” (Brown Collections). In “Chattanooga Nights,” an essay included in Billy Ray’s Farm, Brown recalled, “I was pretty excited about going. I was also intimidated by the whole thing because I was still pretty green about the situation a young writer finds himself in if people like his books, the travel and the speaking engagements and the readings and the bookstores. … The conference was the first well-paying gig I ever had, and the money they were giving me was a lot more than a whole month’s salary at the fire department” (29–30). Downtown Chattanooga’s Radisson Hotel was “the nicest place” (31) in which either he or Mary Annie had ever stayed, and both of them were thrilled with their new success. Moreover, the conference brought him into the orbit of several heavyweights in the southern literary world: “It was pretty stunning to me to see Ernest Gaines and Louis [Rubin] (p.74) going down the street just talking like regular people. My eyes got big seeing William Styron and Andrew Lytle and Horton Foote in the flesh” (32). Brown also met and talked with Madison Jones; although Brown did not know who Jones was, the Mississippian appreciated the older and more experienced author’s kindness (32).
Less than a month later, Brown gave a reading and workshop at Delta State University in Cleveland, Mississippi. Bill Hays, a professor of English there, subsequently told Brown, “Your workshop and reading were as good as any we have ever had at Delta State. I thought the afternoon session was especially good. There were many good questions from our people, and your answers were thoughtful, honest and clearly without the pretension that often occurs in such programs” (Brown Collections).
That May, Brown made his first trip to New York City and won his first major award. Brown traveled to New York to promote his forthcoming novel, Dirty Work; to meet Peter Workman, who had recently bought Algonquin Books, and others who worked in the press’s New York offices; to meet his agent, Liz Darhansoff; and to attend an organized reading of “Samaritans” at a small Symphony Space conference on the short story, for which he earned fifty dollars. Back home in Yocona, Brown wrote to Edgerton, “The thing on Broadway was fine. It was sold out, 900 people paid ten bucks a head.” The meeting with the publishing staff had also been a success: “I … met Workman and all, gave my little reading. I even got a pretty good round of applause from the salesmen. Of course they made me leave the room after that, so they could talk freely about DIRTY WORK.” And he had enjoyed meeting Darhansoff, whom he described as “really nice. Like a different person over the phone. God she’s rich, ain’t she. … She was really sweet in person, though.” But Brown was glad to be home: “I ain’t nothing but a homeboy, ain’t no need pretending I’m anything else” (Edgerton Papers). His designated escort on the trip, Ina Stern, a member of Workman Publishing’s marketing department, recalled that Brown indeed appeared uncomfortable in the big city and that he seemed particularly dismayed with the way she drove her small car around Manhattan: “We criss-crossed the island, running yellow lights and zig-zagging between traffic lanes and trying to avoid cabs and buses, honking at (p.75) everything that came into our path. I casually pointed out all of the wonderful sights of New York as we whizzed by them and I tried to explain to Larry that that is how you drive in New York” (“Go, Little Book” 48). After the ride, Brown suggested a stop for a drink. He and Stern had several, ending up at the Fulton Fish Market, and Brown did not return to his hotel until nearly two in the morning. When he described his night out to Mary Annie, “It didn’t sit well with her atall,” even though “I didn’t do anything wrong” (Edgerton Papers).
On the way to New York, Brown spent several days in Chapel Hill, visiting with Edgerton and the staff at Algonquin. Brown was impressed with the size of the town and had a pleasant stay there despite his homesickness. He also apparently did considerable drinking: Edgerton subsequently wrote to Brown, “We enjoyed having you. I didn’t mind you getting drunk—you were on vacation—you were very calm and nobody cared. I was glad to have you. … I felt like you were family in a good way” (Brown Collections).
Before his trip, Brown learned that Facing the Music had earned him the Mississippi Institute of Arts and Letters Prize, a ten-year-old award that brought with it one thousand dollars in cash. In a 23 May Oxford Eagle article, Brown said,
It’s the most important thing that’s ever happened to me. I knew I had been nominated a couple of months ago. I was really stunned when they called to tell me I’d won. … I said, ‘Are you kidding?’ I just couldn’t believe it.
I had always hoped for something like this. But I never thought it could come on the first book, and I was up against some good books. (David Smith, “Local” 1A)
Other authors whose works had been nominated included Will Campbell, Ellen Douglas, Ellen Gilchrist, Beverly Lowry, Margaret Walker Alexander, Stuart Stevens, Frederick Barthelme, Hodding Carter III, and Elizabeth Spencer (1A). Brown received the award at a “black tie banquet” held at the Mississippi Art Museum in Jackson, giving a brief acceptance speech and reading “Facing the Music.” Brown told the audience, “I set my goals high early on, and although I’ve never lowered (p.76) them, I’ve had to learn patience, and maybe the most important thing: if you want to be a writer bad enough, nobody can stop you.” He concluded, “This is the proudest moment of my life, and it’s because of the literary heritage that we have here. I was born here, raised here, I still live here. I’ve been to quite a few places, and they’re okay to visit, but I haven’t found any place yet that suits me any better than this one. For my state to honor my work like this—my state: Mississippi—means more to me than I can say” (Brown Collections).
In June 1989, Brown attended the annual meeting of the American Booksellers Association in Washington, D.C., though he hated the idea of going and wrote to Ravenel on 27 April, “The more I think about it, the more it sounds like a bad idea for me. I have this terrible fear of getting embarrassed in front of people because I don’t know enough about literature to talk about it like I do. I don’t run around with any intellectuals and don’t want to know any. I damn sure don’t want to try and sound like one” (Algonquin Files). While there, Brown held a joint press conference with Gibbons to talk about their soon-to-be-published novels, Dirty Work and A Virtuous Woman: “Brown told reporters he ‘grew up in Mississippi listening to people tell me stories’ and that he likes to use the first person narrative method because it ‘reminds me of listening to those stories. … I try to write about the south that I live in now’” (Glendenning, “Booklovers” L7).
Brown reluctantly read again at the Faulkner Conference in Oxford at the end of July: he had “tried to decline, saying truthfully that I didn’t want people to get tired of hearing me, but they kept on and on until I finally relented. Clyde [Edgerton] was coming down anyway, to visit with me and just attend the Conference, so we worked it out in a way that won’t cost him anything to attend. He’ll enjoy it. I’m going to cook him some catfish and shrimp one night and take him to the oldest graveyard that I know of, one where the stones go back to the 1700s and are still readable” (LB to JM, Brown Collections). Edgerton flew himself to Oxford in a plane he had recently bought and took Brown’s wife and children on short flights, though a “freak storm” prevented Brown from going up and the two men “had to literally hold the airplane down in order to get the tie-down lines tied. … We were laughing while we worked.” But Brown’s reading at the conference was less (p.77) enjoyable: he explained to Ravenel on 3 August, “Well the bad karma I had going for the reading at the Faulkner Conference was correct. Some dilbert-head didn’t think I’d need a PA system to throw my voice out to people sitting over 100 feet away, a couple of hundred of them. So I had to kind of quietly scream my reading. I cut it short. I had to. People couldn’t hear me” (Algonquin Files).
Brown’s promotional efforts, combined with those of Algonquin’s Ravenel and Jhanke, paid off, and the collection was widely reviewed. According to Keith Perry, much of Facing the Music’s success resulted from the press’s emphasis on Brown’s career as a fireman, but two other significant factors also contributed to the literary world’s interest in the volume: first, Brown was clearly a self-made writer in an era when most beginning writers are products of collegiate writing programs; second, Brown wrote realistically and sympathetically about lower-class life in a way that appealed to a reading audience comprised mainly of members of the middle class. Because Brown saw his characters as authentic human beings, worth writing about because of their humanity, his writing seems genuine.
Facing the Music introduced Brown’s concern with working-class residents of North Mississippi. Brown’s male characters—as well as some of his women—thrive on alcohol, cigarettes, bars, and sex. These men drive their pickup trucks, usually equipped with coolers of cold beer or schnapps, through the backwoods, particularly during the early evening. Brown referred to this time as the “gloam,” borrowing James Street’s term for the time after the sun has gone down “and left about an hour of light before dark. It’s the very best time to ride around and listen to some music” (OF 25). In the words of Susan Ketchin, “Brown introduces us to people who seem to be paralyzed by calamity, and who eventually must learn, often with only the slightest glimmer of understanding, how to deal with it—through resignation, denial, or a wan faith” (“Larry” 101). Brown believed that “there is just no way for some lives to have a happy ending” (Weinraub F4). But according to Robert Beuka, Brown possessed a “sense of empathy toward his characters [that] allows Brown’s stories to transcend the merely banal or brutal” (59). Brown described his characters as “very much like the people that I know best. All I really do is just kind of watch the people around me, (p.78) watch what goes on. That’s where all my characters come from” (Weinraub F4). On another occasion, Brown explained, “I build my stories, and I try to be authentic in them. The events have to be authentic, too, no matter how painful the endings might be. I sometimes get accused of being brutal and having a dark vision. … Tragedy is inevitable in my stories because of the circumstances people live in” (Bonetti et al. 244). Those “circumstances”—particularly poverty, a lack of family or social connections, and the inability to find a positive sense of self— often lead to conflict and violence, and the resolutions are not always positive.
In one of the first published reviews of Facing the Music, which appeared in the Columbia (South Carolina) State on 11 September 1988, William Starr declared, “There are small private moments here which Brown dissects with the precision of a neurosurgeon, peeling back layers to expose the heart of darkness within.” Other reviewers, including Paul Kaplan, noted the stories’ resemblances to the work of Raymond Carver. Wrote Jana Harris in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, “Brown has cut to the heart of deadbeat America, portraying a frighteningly misogynistic world as only someone who has been there could do. Nobody’s even thinking of working things out—they just order another beer” (L7). According to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s Joyce Slater, “You probably wouldn’t want to meet many of [Brown’s characters], and I feel fairly certain that you wouldn’t want to be any of them. Still, their stories manage to touch us in surprisingly potent ways” (K10). A few reviewers criticized the stories for their sameness, and Betsy Leighton of the Winston-Salem (North Carolina) Journal wrote that comparisons with Faulkner were premature, but she also noted that Brown “knows the lingo, the country, deep-South dialect, the culture, the heartbreak and the limitations that plague those of whom he writes. He pulls no punches. These stories are not for the fainthearted” (H4).
Brown’s stories take a variety of approaches. He had written to Ravenel in October 1987, “I like working in new forms. I like inventing a different way to tell a story because if it works I’ve done something nobody else has” (Algonquin Files). The stories’ most prominent theme is the difficulty of maintaining permanent love after the physical thrills (p.79) of youth and raising children have passed: dreams must be abandoned in the face of aging.
The collection opens with the title story, the idea for which came to Brown while he was sitting at a red light in Oxford and “saw a man and a woman in a bedroom watching TV, and I knew something was seriously wrong between them” (Watkins, “Hot” 1D). Brown turned the situation into the tale of a working-class couple (the husband is a fireman) trying to cope with the wife’s breast cancer and mastectomy, a subject that although now commonly discussed was, according to Ravenel, “forbidden territory” at the time. But Brown “just wades right in and deals with it with frankness and tenderness” (Sid Scott 7F). The man and the woman, both in their fifties, have apparently enjoyed a satisfying sexual relationship until the removal of the woman’s breast. The wife desperately wants that relationship to continue, but the husband cannot endure the sight of her maimed body and has begun an affair with another woman. According to Jerome Klinkowitz, “The tone is at once conversational and intimate; indeed, by his second paragraph Brown’s storyteller has established that he feels cozier with the reader than with his wife” (72).
The story begins with the troubled couple watching Ray Milland in The Lost Weekend while lying side by side in bed. Both are drinking to deaden the pain of their loss, but both know that this encounter will end like all the others since her surgery—in darkness both literal and spiritual. Brown told Susan Ketchin, “People think that story is autobiographical. I get letters all the time about that one from people consoling me and my wife about ‘her mastectomy.’ But this story is really about pain and loss wherever you find it. … I did see it as having a hopeful ending” (“Interview” 128). The ending is ambiguous, with readers able to see the man and woman turning off the light as they begin to have sex as a sign either of continued darkness or of hope. The story powerfully evokes the horrors that arise as people grow older and must face life with greater realism.
In “Kubuku Rides (This Is It),” Brown handles the perspective of a young African American female alcoholic. Assuming this point of view would seem to represent a considerable risk for Brown, but he was (p.80) immediately confident in this narrator: “Sometimes, you know when you write the first line, you know you’ve got a voice. And that’s the way it was when I wrote the first couple of lines of that story. I knew that the rest of the story had to follow. I knew that I had the dialect and the rest of the story had to follow in that vein and be accurate after the first two lines” (LaRue 45–46). Brown wrote “Kubuku Rides” on “Christmas Eve day in 1986, and I didn’t do anything for fourteen hours but write that story. It came in one long shot, and when I finished the story, it was basically just like it is today. Just a gift” (Manley 122). Brown imagined the voice “of a young black girl, a writer telling the story, who had an African name. And this was going to be like the first thing she had done, you know. And it was like a horse coming out of the gate for the first time. And that’s just the image that I had of the speaker telling the story. It wasn’t Angel telling it; it was somebody else telling it. Not me either” (LaRue 46).
Angel’s problems with alcohol result not from her race but from her uncontrollable addiction. She has a loving and supportive husband, Alan, and a young son, Randy, both victims of her inability to control her drinking. After cutting his hand while fighting with Angel over a bottle of wine that she has sneaked into the house, Alan says, “This is it! Can’t stand it! Sick of it!” (FM 15). In a series of flashbacks, Angel recalls episodes that show how addicted she is and how her drinking leads to catastrophe. She recognizes that neither her heartbroken husband nor her desire to quit can control her problem: “This thing not something you throw off cold. This thing deep, this thing beat more good people than her” (27). The story ends with Angel getting into her car to go buy more wine and watching Alan turn off the porch light, symbolizing the hopelessness of her situation.
Mr. Pellisher, the main character in “The Rich,” is a travel agent who spends his workday planning trips for people who, unlike him, can afford exotic vacations. In some ways, this story is as close as Brown ever came to voicing a kind of Marxist anger against the capitalist system. Pellisher tries to give his clients the impression that he is their social and economic equal, but he knows otherwise and suffers from what he perceives as deprivation. The phrase “the rich” is repeated constantly (p.81) in the story—nine times on the first page alone. This repetition reinforces Pellisher’s obsessive jealousy of those he serves as well as Brown’s distinction between the classes.
“Old Frank and Jesus” continues the feeling of frustration that permeates “The Rich.” “Old Frank and Jesus” is the oldest story in the collection, written in 1984. Set in the 1960s, the story deals with the imminent suicide of Marvin Parker, a fifty-eight-year-old Mississippi farmer who has lost all hope. Brown told Gary Pettus, “That frame of time, during the Vietnam War, … when … the kids were rebelling and the parents didn’t like it, that’s just the time frame that hit me for the story. … I would identify more with the kids who were rebelling, because, you know, from [Parker’s] point of view, the whole thing was just senseless. Whereas from their point of view, my point of view, in the sixties, hearing the Beatles and Jimi Hendrix, I thought it was great” (“Interview” 14). Having killed his favorite dog, Frank, because Parker’s wife fears that the animal will bring rabies into their home, Parker lies on the living room sofa, a borrowed pistol concealed beneath it. On this, the last morning of his life, Parker reviews his troubled existence and decides that death is preferable to struggling with dying farm animals, falling fences, unmanageable debts, irate neighbors, a wife too concerned with material possessions, and children whose enthusiasm for popular culture has sapped their work ethic. Brown told Susan Ketchin, “For a long time, I’ve been trying to understand suicide, and I do see how it is not a sin for some people in some cases. The story ‘Old Frank and Jesus’ is drawn from a man who used to cut my hair. One day, he borrowed a pistol and shot himself through the head. … Mr. P. in the story was concerned with two things he couldn’t understand: How could anybody be so mean to Jesus? How did he let his wife talk him into shooting his old dog?” (“Interview” 129). Parker has lost his faith in Christianity, looking at a picture of Jesus on the wall and thinking, “There was a time when he could have a little talk with Jesus and everything’d be all right. Four or five years ago he could” (FM 50). This loss of faith is one factor in Parker’s decision to end his life. The story ends with what Beuka describes as “the blunt observation, ‘Mr. Parker, fifty-eight, is reclining on his couch.’ (p.82) After investing his character with a rounded, idiosyncratic personality through the use of extended interior monologue, Brown leaves his plight unresolved” (59).
Brown deliberately used an experimental form in “Boy and Dog”: each sentence has five words. He began crafting the story in his mother-in-law’s kitchen; after writing the first page, he thought, “I bet I can do something a little different there and just stack those lines one under the other. And put five words in each sentence and make it look like a poem but really be a short story” (RS). Brown also said that he was trying to write in a style that Donald Barthelme had never used (Pettus, “Interview” 14). The strategy initially escaped even his editor: according to Ravenel, when she first started working on the story with him, she “said something in my editorial way like ‘Well, Larry, I think you ought to add this word to the 19th sentence in the story,’ and he said, ‘Well, if I do that, it’ll be six words long, that sentence.’ And I said, ‘So … ,’ and he said ‘Well, all the sentences in that story are five words long’” (Gross).
Brown found the story’s subject particularly interesting: he loved dogs and had many killed on the highway “because they don’t have sense enough to get out of the road.” He recalled that on one occasion, he watched as a dog came “walking out of the ditch and there was this Mustang coming down the road about sixty and the dog never looked around, just walked straight into the car—of course it killed him instantly—and I just got the idea” (Manley 123).
The story itself is bildungsroman: the young protagonist witnesses the death of his pet and then reacts dangerously when he sees the car returning to the scene to recover a hubcap. “The kid” hurls a brick at the driver of the car, with catastrophic results: the driver ends up a charred corpse. At the end of the story, “the kid” suggests that he has learned how to get what he wants: “But fathers must be cautious. / Kids are violent these days. / Especially where pets are concerned” (FM 69).
“Julie: A Memory” is another experimental story. The central narrator has impregnated his girlfriend, Julie, and apparently has watched both as she had an abortion and as she was raped in a parked car. The story is at times confusing, since other voices sporadically seem to (p.83) take over narration. According to Barry Walters, “‘Julie: A Memory’ presents a young man’s impression of how a gang beat him, raped his girlfriend, and left him with a confusion of memories that refuse to be recalled logically” (57). When Ravenel first read the story, she remembered, “It just blew me away. … I wrote to him, ‘I think it’s amazing,’ and he said, ‘I’m so surprised. That’s one of those that I just sat down and wrote and then I … cut it up and mix[ed] it up. I just did it so fast that I didn’t think anybody would ever like it.’” The story clearly shows the influence of Faulkner. The central narrator is reminiscent of Quentin in The Sound and the Fury but is a less intellectual, far more physical young man. Brown avoided such distorted narration in his later work, apparently realizing that he, unlike Faulkner, could not handle the nuances of stream-of-consciousness narration.
“Samaritans,” a title that probably alludes to Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan, introduces down-and-out characters in desperate need of physical salvation. The story evolved from Brown’s experiences at an Oxford bar, Opal’s: “I wrote it probably about 1985. [I thought,] what if a kid walked into a bar one day, wanted to buy cigarettes, and wasn’t old enough. That’s where the whole thing started. … It just went on from there. And I just lifted the whole place in my mind” (RS).
The story’s protagonist, Frank, sits in a Mississippi bar, drinking beer to deaden the pain caused by his wife’s desertion of him for another man. In spite of his self-pity, he becomes an unwitting Samaritan when a ragged woman, her mother, and her four children, wandering from Alabama to Louisiana, stop at the bar. After the mother sends her underage son into the bar to buy cigarettes, Frank befriends the family, buying the woman beer and cigarettes and ultimately giving her thirty dollars although he realizes that she and her mother will just use the money to get drunk. When the oldest boy calls Frank “a dumb sumbitch” for giving the woman the money, Frank has to agree (FM 100). In the story, Brown “wanted to say a lot of things, some contradictory. Like, it’s about the futility of helping people who do nothing to help themselves, the outcasts of society. But it’s also about that it’s a good thing to try. That’s what Jesus would have done. It’s an ironic title” (Ketchin, “Interview” 129–30). The plural form of the title (p.84) thus suggests that the true Samaritans may be the members of the ragtag family, who remove Frank from his obsession with himself.
The final three stories in the collection, like “Facing the Music,” deal with failed heterosexual relationships. In “Night Life,” the protagonist is Gary, an unappealing loser who has been in jail and has returned to live with his mother. Looking to pick up any available woman for sex, he goes to a bar and meets Connie, who is married to a successful contractor but is trying to break away from him and her middle-class life. Although she is reluctant, Gary persuades her to go to a hotel with him; he then learns that she has been leaving her young children at home alone when she goes to bars. Outraged and disgusted, he slaps her, using his open hand because he doesn’t “want to scare the little girls with blood. They would be frightened, and might remember it for the rest of their lives” (FM 127). The irony here is heavy: it is permissible to hit a woman, but children must be protected at all costs.
“Leaving Town” is written from the alternating perspectives of the two central characters, Richard, a young bricklayer and handyman, and Myra, a middle-aged woman recently divorced from her husband. In a final act of vengeance, Myra’s husband has broken the doors of the house where she continues to live, and she calls Richard to fix them. Richard lives with Betty, a slovenly woman who has borne another man’s child out of wedlock. Richard loves the little girl, Tracey, but not her mother. Myra and Richard nearly fall into a relationship based on her sexual need and his desire to talk about the no-win situation in which he finds himself with Betty. Though Myra and Richard do not sleep together, their interaction gives him the strength to take Tracey and leave for Florida, with Myra’s number still in his pocket.
In “The End of Romance,” the final story in the volume, another couple, the unnamed narrator and a woman named Miss Sheila, are “riding around” toward the end of their affair. He is a would-be writer whose friends include “poets, artists, actors, English professors out at Ole Miss” (FM 162); Miss Sheila has become tired of their drunken shenanigans. As the narrator and Miss Sheila are about to break up, they stop at a convenience store for beer but end up caught in a shoot-out between two black men. When the cops arrive, the narrator points to Miss Sheila and says, “She did it” (FM 167), a comic resolution to a (p.85) less-than-comic situation. Walters wrote of the story, “Brown’s specialty is examining at close range the creepy little things that make his characters tick, while he remains emotionally distant. There’s nothing he won’t do to achieve the right queasy effect. When you notice that he’s using a dying black stickup man, oozing guts and gore to symbolize ‘The End of Romance’ in his final story, you realize that country folks are just as morbid as we are” (57).
With his well-received volume of short stories winning him acclaim and recognition, Brown returned his attention to his first novel, which he had started writing even before Ravenel read “Facing the Music.” In the late summer of 1989, Algonquin released that novel, Dirty Work.