A Tribute to Larry Brown
My friend Larry Brown, whom I admire as much as any writer I’ve ever known, was beloved by so many for his innocence and tenderness, for his thoughtful consideration for the voiceless, the disempowered, and the disenfranchised: for children, dogs, wild nature under assault, and, always, the poor. He was a complex man, extraordinarily gentle-hearted even though steeped in the practices and traditions of a culture well-versed in the functional and pragmatic and daily execution of brutality and violence. With the moral precision of our greatest novelists, he wrote not just of the world he inhabited but of a world he believed we ought to inhabit, one often sharper, more vital and consequential than this one, a world that reflects the fullest potential of our own, a world with no slack spots and few inconsequentialities: a truly sacred and moral world, in other words.
The essays that follow this foreword are scholarly treatises, not personal ones, but because Larry was my friend, it’s important to me to tell future readers what I know, what I worry they may not otherwise discern: that his novels are novels of manners, of deeply moral values, works in which every action has profound consequence and in which every description is either laced—if not fraught—with beauty or laments the absence thereof. Consider, for instance, the following, from his posthumous novel A Miracle of Catfish (2007): “Each evening,” he wrote, Cortez Sharp “stood on the porch and studied the sky. On the prettiest evenings the gray patches of clouds reddened in the wake of the sinking orange ball and were backlit in some kind of old beauty that fell behind the curve of the world and turned the sky into a painting he never tired of watching” (66). What Cortez looks for is rain to fill his pond; soon, he begins to see it: “He stood there and felt the wind stirring in his thick hair. The leaves on the big pecans were starting to waft up and show their paler undersides, and he saw a bolt of pure white (p.viii) light up the inside of a gray cloud far off. Deep thunder rolled booming out of the sky echoing again and again and the wind picked up as the ceiling blackened and moved his way. Birds fled before it, scattering in the wind, wavering, dodging in its path. The sky rumbled and Cortez saw the beauty of the world God made” (68–69). I have always found great affinity with Larry’s keen regard for a certain rightness of things, his respect for the fitted elegance and sophistication and just plain mystery of a wilder, farther nature so much older than our own.
And as a writer, I’m certain that such passages—singular, graceful, hypnotic—will stand on their own as markers and testaments to the era in which he lived: a historical time, a transition period of profound socioeconomic stratification, colonization, dissipation, and fracture. The Old South hurtled into the New within a single generation and then—carried headlong by its own momentum—hurtled still faster into the No-South as the commerce of corporate homogeneity swept across the region. (In the next generation, a Faux-South would be erected, with decorative signposts and commercial pressure points that, sadly, would be the last remnants of what was previously a place of ecological integrity.)
What I lament is the loss not of the sociocultural legacy of the Old South but its older, more intact and, to my way of thinking, diverse, graceful, and cohesive physical landscape. In that now bygone South, that land of physical integrity, there was still an ungoverned wildness. In stories—perhaps most famously Faulkner’s “The Bear” (1942)—that wildness becomes an innate refusal to be governed, a willful refutation of structures, covenants, communal sensibilities, a standing defense against the forces of change and attacks against the integrity of place. We often witness that same wildness in Brown’s work, a wildness familiar to those increasingly few observant enough to have fully experienced any ecosystem not yet completely beset by fragmentation: a landscape in which significant and elegant connections and relationships have not yet been wholly truncated.
Not even a numb-nuts fuckup like Jimmy’s daddy, also from A Miracle of Catfish, can vanquish that bright-burning fire found far back in the remnant country of ecological integrity. Drunk and stumbling of a wild, snowy, December midnight, he follows a pack of ravening hounds deep into the forest: “They had been running through the woods in the river bottom and they were still running, dodging past the trees and past the big hanging wild grapevines and over the dead leaves with their guns and following the sounds of the dogs and the squealing of the hog as he turned occasionally (p.ix) and stopped to fight. Jimmy’s daddy was almost out of breath and he hadn’t known it was going to be like this. The snow was still falling and everything was dusted in this surprising December white” (421). The hunters eventually force the last-gasp stand of a feral European beast that is the essence of this same wildness:
He ripped his way through the hanging vines and tried to bat away the clinging thorny vines and felt one of them rip his cheek. He dabbed the back of one hand against his face and it came away slick with blood. Fuck it. And then he saw them. And it was something he would never forget. The hog had backed himself against the trunk of an enormous cypress and he was cutting at the dogs that had encircled him, dogs that were almost unrecognizable because of the mud on their hides, and they were dashing in and out and nipping at the hog. The lost dog had somehow found them so that there were four of them in a ring around the beast, who was enraged and snapping his jowls at the dogs, the hair raised on their backs, their fangs long and white and exposed. The hog had sunk to his hocks in the soft ground and he was struggling to keep his footing and still make a fight and it was still snowing. Every time he turned his head to cut at a dog, the other three rushed in and slashed at him with their teeth, and the hog was dripping blood from his face, and Jimmy’s daddy was scared of it just standing there looking at it. (425)
The boar charges Jimmy’s daddy, and in the raw presence of such elemental fortitude, the corrupted, drunken, softbellied man of the present, vomiting from his long run through what once had been his home, is humiliated again as he fires blindly at the mythic beast, missing the wildness entirely, killing instead his domesticated and servile dog.
This same inner spark of indomitable wildness lives in much of Brown’s work, and there as in A Miracle it makes the land, as well as those rare inhabitants of it fully attuned to it, whole again. Such values, when enacted upon behalf of an indigenous landscape or nature, I posit, are moral values, and by coupling this moral vision with literary excellence Brown produced several great works. My personal favorite, though—despite my great passion for On Fire (1994), Billy Ray’s Farm (2001), and A Miracle of Catfish in particular—is his 1991 novel Joe.
Many years have passed since I have heard someone refer to the Great American Novel—not for a lack of great novels being written, I suspect, (p.x) nor for an absence of writerly ambition, but perhaps from a healthful fragmentation and diversification of the American experience. I have heard the case made often that F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby (1925) is as fine a candidate for the title as any, but I’ve always been partial to Robert Penn Warren’s All The King’s Men (1946), with its theme of lost innocence concurrent with the corruption of absolute power. On that novel’s luscious first page, the fecund rot of love vine claims so eagerly the wrecked carcass of an imaginary vehicle whose driver, in a spate of dreamy inattentiveness behind an engine of too-much power, has spun off the blacktop and careened into the ditch to be forgotten and passed by:
To get there you follow Highway 58, going northeast out of the city, and it is a good highway and new. Or was new, that day we went up it. You look up the highway and it is straight for miles, coming at you, with the black line down the center coming at and at you, black and slick and tarry-shining against the white of the slab, and the heat dazzles up from the white slab so that only the black line is clear, coming at you with the whine of the tires, and if you don’t quit staring at that line and don’t take a few deep breaths and slap yourself hard on the back of the neck you’ll hypnotize yourself and you’ll come to just at the moment when the right front wheel hooks over into the black dirt shoulder off the slab, and you’ll try to jerk her back on but you can’t because the slab is high like a curb, and maybe you’ll try to reach to turn off the ignition just as she starts the dive. But you won’t make it, of course. Then a nigger chopping cotton a mile away, he’ll look up and see the little column of black smoke standing up above the vitriolic, arsenical green of the cotton rows, and up against the violent, metallic, throbbing blue of the sky, and he’ll say, ‘Lawd God, hit’s a-nudder one done done hit!’ And the next nigger down the next row, he’ll say, ‘Lawd God,’ and the first nigger will giggle, and the hoe will lift again and the blade will flash in the sun like a heliograph. Then a few days later the boys from the Highway Department will mark the spot with a little metal square on a metal rod stuck in the black dirt off the shoulder, the metal square painted white and on it in black a skull and crossbones. Later on love vine will climb up it, out of the weeds. (3)
All the King’s Men retains this power all the way through to its final page, on which the protagonist is brought, like a reluctant birthling, into the full awareness of “the convulsion of the world, out of history into history and the awful responsibility of Time” (464). And in that time’s passage we are (p.xi) reminded, almost by cadence if not by voice alone, of Gatsby’s final line: “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past” (189). The insularity and romance and aggression of the old American experience—or at least those of the ruling white folk of the time—are all magnificently rendered, beautifully embodied.
I’d argue that Brown’s Joe is the second Great American Novel, a direct descendant of the first—and, likewise, the Great Southern Novel. With innocence in the world long-lost, ceded at least a quarter-century ago, the next casualty is the last of the old American virtues—personal freedom, with all its rights and responsibilities—and, in such a deeply place-based existence as that of rural Southerners, such loss translates into the loss of @identity itself: a fate infinitely worse than the rot and senescence of Warren’s bittersweet denouement.
Joe’s opening notes even sound like those of All The King’s Men: human transience; an indefinable mood of yearning and dissatisfaction; solitary figures sketched sharp but tiny against an overpowering, overwhelming tableau of elemental nature; the primal passage of time (and hence history) one of the residual side-effects of the disparity between big Nature, little Mankind, and Time immemorial.
The road lay long and black ahead of them and the heat was coming now through the thin soles of their shoes. There were young beans pushing up from the dry brown fields, tiny rows of green sprigs that stretched away in the distance. They trudged on beneath the burning sun, but anyone watching could have seen that they were almost beaten. They passed over a bridge spanning a creek that held no water as their feet sounded weak drumbeats, erratic and small in the silence that surrounded them. No cars passed these potential hitchhikers. The few rotting houses perched on the hillsides of snarled vegetation were broken-backed and listing, discarded dwellings where dwelled only field mice and owls. It was as if no one lived in this land or ever would again, but they could see a red tractor toiling in a field far off, silently, a small dust cloud following. (1)
As in All The King’s Men, most if not all of Joe’s major concerns announce themselves on the novel’s first page, as does even the concurrent imagery: rot; the dazzling Southern heat (nature as ultimate arbiter and character); the newer American (and more specifically Southern) themes of the threat and fear of intransigency; and yet, at the same time, a ceaseless opportunity (p.xii) for growth, or at least re-growth, with the repetitiveness of the cycling seasons—new growth emerging from old rot, even if according to the same patterns.
The villain in Joe Ransom, the title character, is the forward momentum, the short-term economic muscularity, of America itself, as well as the fear-driven societal pressure toward homogenization. Joe makes his living by killing, in part, that wildness I mention above, that rank spirit of the Southern swampland that is tragically and at the same time his home and heritage, the landscape that has shaped him, that accepts him, and in which he finds solace from his failures, marital and economic, among others. He barters, trades—ransoms, in other words—his own independence for cash.
Dense also in Joe is the theme of horrific waste. We learn that, for timber companies, it’s cheaper to hire Joe and his crews to inject poison into hardwoods and then wait for them to die than it is to expend the energy of sawing them down. For Joe, the changing world—police vigilant to his every move, the passing-by of a rural life and rural objects—so conspires against his old freedoms that he may as well be one of those hardwoods himself.
Again and always, however, the land remains steadfast, even against Joe’s own depredations, stands as refuge and harbor, sanctuary and emotional firmament against the shifting substratum of his life, as well as that of Gary, the young wastrel-boy he takes under his wing. Gary’s perspective recognizes and @identifies nature as balm early in the book:
It was that part of evening when the sun has gone but daylight still remains. The whippoorwills called to each other and moved about, and the choirs of frogs had assembled in the ditches to sing their melancholy songs. Bats scurried overhead, swift and gone in the gathering dusk. The boy didn’t know where he and his family were, other than one name: Mississippi.
In the cooling evening light they turned off onto a gravel road, their reasons unspoken or merely obscure. Wilder country here, also unpeopled, with snagged wire and rotten posts encompassing regions of Johnsongrass and bitterweed, the grim woods holding secrets on each side. They walked up the road, the dust falling over their footprints. A coyote lifted one thin broken scream down in the bottom; somewhere beyond the stands of cane they could see a faint green at the end of the plowed ground. They turned in on a field road at the base of a soapstone hill and followed it, stepping around washed-out places in the ground, past pine trees standing like lonely sentinels, (p.xiii) where doves flew out singing on gray-feathered wings, and by patches of bracken where unseen things scurried off noisily through the brush. (5)
The urge in Joe to do good, to be good, wrestles with his at times uncontrollable dark urges, which are not limited to an alcoholism of wild amplitudes. If such individual wildness—such volatile conflict—was ever sustainable in Joe’s life, it surely seems less so as the novel progresses. And as the swamp’s rank richness is sacrificed, it seems that the uncontrollable in him surges evermore.
We watch with fascinated horror, strange and conflicting emotions, as Joe increasingly “adopts” Gary, giving him vital guidance and values. Under his attention the boy blossoms, even as we fear also that the world into which Joe indoctrinates him is a wretched dead-end. There’s something particularly horrific about the innocence and enthusiasm with which Gary all but leaps into this world of boozing, whoring, and drinking-and-driving. And yet for Gary, who even as a barely adolescent boy has assumed the work and responsibilities of a grown man, a breadwinner, it is a step up, a forward movement, to enter this doomed world. And in this transformation, even as Joe succumbs increasingly to a kind of inevitable, almost predestined personal rot, Gary seems increasingly salvaged—if not saved, then redeemed— rather than wasted.
Another of the now-crumbling foundations on which Joe’s older South once rested is the traditional role of the father or husband as breadwinner, and indeed the general loss of freedom—the virtual imprisonment— wrought by economic disintegration. Stranded between the wild yaws of his life—the deep urge to do great good, with, yet, the powerful urge to do great harm—and beset by that wild refusal to be controlled, he repeatedly tries to use the strange new god of the times, cash, as intermediary between these two lands—between these two Joes—and as communication and mitigation for the emotional absences caused, in part, by that same wildness and the failures in his case attendant to it. On the unpredictable, windfall occasions in which he does come into financial bounty, he tries to pass wads of money to his ex-wife and daughter, as well as to Gary. (He’s unsuccessful with the first two, though with Gary he is able to exorcise this desire to help—to control or mitigate, briefly—some of his demons.)
What are his demons? Reading Joe, I’m struck by the notion that they may be largely innate: that innate wildness, again, once present in many, (p.xiv) perhaps, which might have been nurtured in certain cultures (such as the backwoods or deeply rural South) but which is now somehow rendered more dangerous, even toxic—as poisonous as the elixir that Joe and his crew pump into the native and yet non-economic hardwoods—by an increasing cultural estrangement from a wilder, stronger, and above all uncontrollable natural environment. I wonder if, in a wilder nature, the rank forest could at once soothe and calm the demons of men like Joe, leaving their communities and cultures to benefit from the equally powerful but oppositional urges to be generous and to do great good.
In this regard—with its quintessentially American paradoxes—the seeming paradox of strength combining with weakness, right combining unblinkingly with wrong—I believe that Joe is, while one of a small handful of great American novels, and one of the great Southern novels, a great American nature novel as well. Who can forget the memorable and lyrical, yet unintentional solace of the epilogue, following Joe’s final act of redemption—the gift of his beloved freedom in final defense of good versus evil?
That winter the trees stood nearly barren of their leaves and the cold seemed to settle into the old log house deep in the woods. The old woman felt it seep into her bones. Each morning the floors seemed colder, each day it was harder to crank the truck. The boy piled wood for colder days to come. At odd times of the day they’d hear the faint honking, and they’d hurry out into the yard to see overhead, and far beyond the range of men’s guns the geese spread out over the sky in a distant brotherhood, the birds screaming to each other in happy voices for the bad weather they were leaving behind, the southlands always ahead of their wings, warm marshes and green plants beckoning them to their ancient primeval nesting lands.
They’d stand looking up until the geese diminished and fled crying out over the heavens and away into the smoking clouds, their voices dying slowly, one last note the only sound and proof of their passing, that and the final wink of motion that swallowed them up into the sky and the earth that met it and the pine trees always green and constant against the great blue wildness that lay forever beyond. (345)
I can recall no more descriptive passage of nature writing than any number of the scenes in Joe, providing almost always tonic against the turmoil of (p.xv) Joe’s life, and yet standing also as their own sentinel, independent of his turmoil.
It is said of All The King’s Men that when someone complimented Warren on the elegance, the fittedness, of its structure—particularly in a narrative all but bursting with lyricism, the genius of corollary and metaphor—the author replied testily that it was “built like a goddamned Swiss watch.” I get the sense, reading Joe, that it is much the same. Just as Joe needs the sanctity or stabilizing influence of a larger, wilder nature to buffer his own struggles, so too does Joe’s relationship to the reader benefit from, and achieve a necessary balance and reference because of, the truly awful standard or yardstick that is Gary’s father.
Doubtless there are thousands of such connections, far more subtle and intricate, yet vital in their cumulative effect, that help give the novel much of its density and power. It’s a novel I love to re-read, admiring character in one reading, plot in another, dialogue in another, and yet, always, its use of language.
A little less than halfway through the novel, Brown lays in a beautiful stand-alone chapter, only three pages in length—seemingly, at first, a set piece, a kind of intermission—in which Gary is trapped, away from home and shelter, in the most torrential thunderstorm he’s ever experienced, a storm beyond his imagination. In a beautifully presented scene, rather than fretting over or fighting the storm, Gary gives himself over to it, hunkering for cover finally in a road culvert, though even this slight protection soon yields to none at all. In a joyfully written, birth-like passage, he is expelled from the canal by the floodwater, gushed out into the new world of opportunity and respect that Joe has helped provide for him—carried along by Joe’s muse, that natural wildness yet again—and in this second birth, Gary is gleeful, a child once more: twice-redeemed, and both times without having sought such redemption.
The roar was a din and the color of the water was like pure mud. One foot slipped, then one hand, and he flew out of the culvert and landed churning in the middle of a creek rising to an angry level, foaming with bits of straw and trash and sticks. He pawed his way through the brown water to the bank and clambered up over the edge of it, his knees coated with mud, his shirtfront and his hands slick with it. The water was cold and the wind was a solid thing he could push against and feel it push back. There was nothing (p.xvi) for shelter. Leaves were wafting across the road as they were torn from the trees and sucked out of the woods. He tried to go up another bank slippery with mud, but it defeated him again and again. His ears were full of water. It didn’t seem possible to him, but the rain doubled in intensity. The world was gone, nothing left but gray disaster. He squatted on the side of the bank and dug his heels in, covering his head with his arms and waiting for it to be over. He was washed clean by the rain. Every drop of mud ran from his clothes and shoes. He had never seen such a rain. He had never even imagined that such a rain could come. (157)
Throughout Joe, there is the powerful, wonderful sense of a greater and grander, wilder, more sharply felt world—more beautiful, more tragic— moving always just below and above the human participants: and through Larry Brown’s mastery, his characters are able to gain access to that more deeply felt world where actions have consequence, and where numbness— the enemy of art—will not be tolerated. The characters enter this world sometimes enthusiastically, sometimes with hesitation, trepidation, even awe—but they always enter it, and in this, become fully human, fully realized, fully moral. The courage of such characters and the beauty of the language and tautness of Brown’s plot leave a reader feeling invigorated about the business of being human, about the viability of hope: again, attributes which place it in good stead, I think, to be designated a great American novel.
History will assuredly preserve Brown’s mantle of excellence; time will only brighten its luster. But what I fear will be lost—particularly as readers of a perhaps more sterile future read of the violence and anger that permeated many of the empty spaces and deep histories of the Deep South of his era—is again what an amazing human being Larry Brown was: far from perfect, but nonetheless amazing. Amazing perhaps for that very disparity. My worst fear is that a casual reader, distanced by time, might come to the assumption that, with his characters so often drinking and fighting and maiming and killing, he might not have been a very kind person. I’ll say once more how important it is to me that readers of the future know what we, here in the present—where it seems that he has been gone now only a few moments—still know: what an incredible human being he was, what an utterly sweet man, and what an absolutely loyal friend. The hundreds or thousands of community members who knew and loved him know this about him, but after they/we are gone, no one else will. I still can’t quite fully (p.xvii) believe or comprehend that; and for that loss—mine, not the future’s—I still sometimes grieve.
But perhaps such things do not matter to posterity. Perhaps only the naked words themselves matter, and after all of us are gone—after all of us who were fortunate enough to know him are gone—maybe it won’t even really matter. But to overlook his true nature as a human being would be to miss or at the very least underappreciate the generosity and moral compassion that lie sometimes unseen or only suspected beneath the harshness and violence of his fiction. Because there is such harshness, is such violence, I would not be surprised if readers of the future ascertained that Brown himself was a harsh and violent man. Maybe such a mistake would be meaningless, for the dead are dead, but such a misunderstanding would fault not just Brown himself but that reader by steering him or her away from the morality that is both the foundation and essence of his fiction.
I keep thinking he’s coming back. I keep thinking that I hear his voice. Lucky readers in the future will discover a great writer, and in his work they will doubtless catch the echoes and resonance of a great man. But they’ll never know what a great friend he was. That’s the part that usually gets lost to history—and, in my mind, it’s the best part—so I’d like to get it submitted here, in this scholarly examination of Larry Brown the Writer, not to dismiss the work discussed herein, but to remind the future that, for all its power and grace, that wasn’t the half of it.