MARCH 13, 2020
THE USE OF THE TERM regional writer often has as much to do with class as with geography. Used and abused in equal measures, the term normally applies to those, usually from the American South but sometimes simply from outside metropolitan publishing areas, who, for one reason or another, have been neglected or who don’t fit comfortably in the predominant literary canon. The term has certainly been used to describe Larry Brown, whose stories and novels are set in and around Lafayette County, Mississippi, a terrain Brown shares with an inordinate number of writers past and present, from William Faulkner to Donna Tartt and Barry Hannah. Although such a description barely does Brown justice, it nevertheless remains a relatively anodyne category, along with dirty realist, Southern Gothic, or country or grit noir. After all, geography has little to do with literary quality, and there are only a limited number of categories one can deploy to sell and market books.
That Brown worked for several years as a fireman in Oxford, Mississippi, while casually laboring at a variety of blue-collar jobs also seems to have played a part in promoting, if not explaining, Brown’s writing career. Needless to say, Brown didn’t suddenly appear as a full-fledged writer, but spent some eight years honing his writerly skills before he was able to sell his first story. All of this suggests that any attempt to categorize Brown simply as a regionalist is not only a kind of geographical ghettoization, but a dubious attitude regarding a working-class writer who subjected himself to the trials and tribulations of learning a skill that relies on one’s brain.
Yet Brown’s writing — honest, direct, and evocative of the region — was a breath of fresh air when his first collection of stories, Facing the Music, appeared in 1988, followed the next year by his first novel, Dirty Work. That he came to writing late, without any institution of higher learning to dictate to him the ideology of good writing, was to his advantage, allowing him to appraise his new vocation with the eyes of someone who knew something of the world and his particular part of it. He therefore ventured into a terra incognita of literary concerns not on a whim, but as an act of faith that would turn into a relentless endeavor, aided by an interest in a small band of outsider practitioners that included Flannery O’Connor, Cormac McCarthy, Charles Bukowski, and Harry Crews. To the last, Brown would devote a chapter of his 2001 book of essays, Billy Ray’s Farm, as well as his novel Fay the following year, calling Crews “my uncle in all ways but blood.” But Brown, whose output would eventually include two volumes of stories, five novels, a memoir, and a book essays, was sui generis, able to dance around any pigeonhole or literary hero. That did not stop the inevitable comparisons to other regionalists, whether the literary (Faulkner, O’Connor, and Eudora Welty) or the low-down (early Jim Thompson, George Milburn, and James Ross, besides more contemporary equivalents, like Crews, Charles Portis, and Daniel Woodrell).
Yet Brown was never one to directly emulate his literary heroes. Though his characters and subject matter might have at times been similar to those so diligently pursued by Crews, Brown was never one to plumb the depths of extremism as Crews did. Unlike O’Connor, Brown, though not without his own peculiarities, never found it necessary to do battle on the page with his religious demons. And no matter how much Brown admired McCarthy and Bukowski, his prose was never as baroque as the former’s, nor did he ever indulge in the latter’s remarkable in-your-face brand of literary sensationalism. Composing stories that could describe a tender moment in one sentence and in the next a violent act leading to unfortunate consequence, Brown much preferred inhabiting his own literary ether, investing himself in narratives that describe those with whom he was familiar, their conversation and stories grist for a literary mill that, in his lifetime, showed no signs of shutting down.
Tiny Love: The Complete Stories could be viewed as a graph of Brown’s evolution as a writer. Read in order, the stories have a progression, becoming increasingly at ease with themselves and their telling. As Brown says in Gary Hawkins’s film, The Rough South of Larry Brown,
I start with trouble on the first page, I don’t plan ahead […] All you gotta have is a character, a place and a situation of what’s been going on and then introduce another character into it and have these two people interact and then see what happens, and then find out what all this other stuff that’s been going on in the past. To me, it’s just fascinating to see what they are going to do next, and then they do something totally unexpected, you did not see coming, and then you know, bang, this is what is going on here, and that’s the payoff for me.
Which is why, with their asides and fondness for spatial transitions, the stories in the much anticipated Tiny Love contain a bite that his novels, no matter how excellent and more seasoned, sometimes lack. Perhaps it’s just that otherwise excellent novels like Dirty Work, Joe, Father and Son, and Fay become somewhat mitigated as Brown moves their narratives from beginning to end. Or it could simply be that Brown worked with more intensity in a confined literary space. This is not dissimilar from classic short story writers, nor from those country songwriters that he so admired, like Harlan Howard or Merle Haggard, who used everyday speech to write about everyday matters. Brown’s construction of his stories is akin to moving from verse to chorus, with a rhythmic lick and kick at the end, all in a time signature familiar but with its own syncopation.
Spanning some 10 years, and seemingly arranged in chronological order, the stories in Tiny Love are short sharp shocks about human frailty, hope, despair, temptation, and desire, focusing, as they do, on those who do whatever is necessary to make it through the day, failing and failing better to make things work. Not surprisingly, given their constant search for solace, Brown’s characters drink more than is good for them and hang out in bars more than they should, spend inordinate amounts of time driving around in pickup trucks, usually with a beer close at hand, or seek refuge in motel rooms and bedrooms, where they chase illicit affairs and engage in repartee that sometimes spills over into arguments as often as it ends in love-making. Likewise, a number of stories take place en route from one place or situation to another, as Brown’s characters hurtle down the blacktop in search of something they will most likely never find. It’s a predominantly male world, but Brown describes it with enough compassion and humanity to make all those mishaps and misfortunes seem universal.
Said to have inherited a love of books and stories from his mother, Brown initially thought he’d try his hand at this writing lark as a means of supplementing his income. After all, how hard could it be? But his pastime soon became a passion, if not an obsession. After eight years of writing and sending out stories, in 1982 he finally published the first story in this collection, “Plant Growing Problems,” in a biker mag called Easyriders. It’s Brown at his most basic, but he’s already investigating a theme he would articulate in future stories and novels: the pursuit of a semi-illegal activity in a place where one has to make do with what’s at hand. Three years later, Brown published a second story, “Nightmare,” in Rod Serling’s The Twilight Zone Magazine, hardly a publication one associates with someone one thinks of as a reality-based writer. Even though the story concerns what would become a typical Brown protagonist, it emphasizes that character’s internal life, an approach that Brown would not return to until later in his writing career.
Both stories appeared prior to Brown’s first collection, Facing the Music (1988), but were not included in that volume. There would be four more stories published in the interregnum between Facing the Music and Brown’s second volume of stories Big Bad Love (1990): “The Crying” and “And Another Thing,” both of which appeared in Barry Hannah’s Reb Fiction ’90; “Tiny Love,” published in Writer’s Harvest (1994); and “A Birthday Party,” published in Southern Review (1992). The last, which might well have been influenced by Bukowski, addresses a familiar theme in Brown’s work: how a writer, or any solitary person, negotiates the world. But what these in-between stories have in common structurally is Brown’s search for an amenable but solid framework within which to construct his fiction. Brown seems to have accomplished this by the time the final previously uncollected story, “A Roadside Resurrection,” appeared in the Paris Review (1991), only a year after the publication of Big Bad Love. Placed at the tail-end of Tiny Love, it’s arguably the best of Brown’s uncollected work, with echoes of Crews’s Gospel Singer, particularly when it comes to the story’s grotesqueries, minus the latter’s guilt-ridden excesses. It might also be the only story in Tiny Love to which one might legitimately apply the label Southern Gothic. Taken as a whole, these previously uncollected stories illustrate Brown’s willingness to experiment with various voices and sentence construction, traveling beyond the region in which they are set to a universal place where he would be able to locate the voice one hears in his later novels.
For anyone unfamiliar with Facing the Music and Big Bad Love, suffice it to say that with this collection one can now read Brown’s stories as a continuum, revealing a side to the writer not otherwise apparent had one only been familiar with his novels. Stories like “The Rich,” “Old Frank and Jesus,” “Boy and Dog,” and “Tiny Love” in Facing the Music demonstrate Brown’s literary preoccupations as well as a beguiling tendency toward self-consciousness, peppered from time to time with languorous sentences that recall McCarthy’s early work. There are also stories like “The Rich” that read like prose poems, and there is even a story, “Boy and Dog,” that in fact is a poem, albeit one that, in its one-sentence-per-line conciseness, reads like hardboiled prose: “The dog was really dead. / Blood was on the asphalt. / He could see it puddling. / The hubcap was bloody too.”
With Big Bad Love, Brown had refined the contours of his sentences, replacing his occasional fondness for excessive verbiage with more natural speech patterns, as illustrated in the first story of that collection, “Falling Out of Love”:
Sheena Baby didn’t hurt for me like I did for her. I knew it. I’d thought about shooting her first and me second, but that wouldn’t have done either of us any good. It wouldn’t be nothing but a short article in some paper that strangers could read and shake their heads over, then turn to the sports. Love goes wrong. It happens every day. You don’t need to kill yourself for love if you can help it but sometimes it’s hard not to.
Meanwhile, a story like “Sleep” shows the degree to which Brown had developed as a writer, having cultivated a tendency to approach the world from an odd John Prine–like angle:
How did we know years ago we’d turn out like this? We sleep about a third of our lives and look what all we miss. But sometimes the things we see in our sleep are more horrible and magical than anything we can imagine. People come after you and try to kill you, cars go backward down the highway at seventy miles an hour with you inside and you’re standing up on the brake. Sometimes you even get a little.
The angle of approach can be so odd that it’s often the case that a character is unable to differentiate between the offbeat and the everyday, or between dreams, nightmares, and wakefulness.
Perhaps a reflection of arriving relatively late to his métier, there are a number of stories in Tiny Love that address the subject of writing itself. Normally a topic most writers would be advised to avoid, Brown tackles the subject behind a thin veil, with a mixture of seriousness, humor, and courage. In “92 Days,” the penultimate entry in Tiny Love, Brown applies himself to how writing can so easily become an obsessive pursuit, leading equally to destruction or redemption. It is a lonely road to travel: “Some chuckle, others shake their heads, as if to allow that the world is a strange place and in it lie things of another nature, a bent order, and beyond a certain point there are no rules to make man mind.” “92 Days” concerns a writer who cannot not write, even though his marriage is falling apart, he’s broke, his life is in tatters. Yet for that person writing, a solitary act in a culture that views such pursuits with suspicion, is everything. The politics of his isolation inevitably going beyond the page: “The day was long and I knew that other days would be long, and I knew that men sometimes had to be close to other men to help them through the hard times. Because that’s what these times were.” Proof, if any were needed, that writing was a world Brown had come to know.
“A Birthday Party” and “The Apprentice” also examine the travails of writing and getting published. The latter is about nothing less than the process by which one learns how to write. But it, like the other Brown stories on the subject of writing, are nothing like the cartoonish throwaways that F. Scott Fitzgerald put together in his wonderful Pat Hobby tales. Rather they are depictions of writers up against the odds, trying to get through the day on their own terms, more in the manner of John Fante’s Bandini novels, like Ask the Dust. For Brown, writing could be a metaphor for an autonomous life that always slips just out of reach. Nevertheless, in the moment of writing, anything is possible and all can be revealed:
I realized right that moment how different were the different types of love. Love between man and woman, husband and wife, was much different from, say, between son and father, or father and daughter, or brother and sister, and father-in-law to second cousin. Love for the right person could make you do anything, give up your own life. I knew there was love that strong.
Perhaps it’s only artifice on Brown’s part, but few seem as willing to put themselves on the line, idiosyncrasies and all, when it comes to depicting their literary evolution. Brown has few compunctions about doing so because he knows that no one is born a writer, that learning to write is a never-ending and obsessive process that takes persistence, practice, and endurance.
The stories in Tiny Love, which represent only the first five years of his life as a published writer, might be uneven, but each bears the Brown trademark when it comes to subject and setting. On all of this, Brown overlays his undeniable sense of humanity. In “Old Soldiers,” he writes: “I thought about things while I drove home alone. I thought about being old, and alone, and drunk, and needing help. I knew I might be like that one day. I thought about having to turn to somebody for help. I hope it would be there.”
Though it’s a long road from Easyriders to the Paris Review, from Dirty Work to screen adaptations like Arliss Howard’s Big Bad Love (2001) and David Gordon Green’s Joe (2013), Brown’s entire publishing career would last just 15 years. During that short period of time, he was able to bring his particular part of the world to life because he was willing to investigate whatever was at hand, wherever he found it, whether in barrooms or bedrooms, at work, in a pickup truck heading down the blacktop, with characters intent on doing the right thing, but whose lives invariably become mediated by their own fallibility. He did all of this with humor and compassion. A regional writer with universal appeal, Brown, who succumbed to an apparent heart attack in 2004 at age 53, put in the hard graft to give his stories not only the haunting honesty and straightforwardness of old-school country songs, but also had that element of unpredictability typical of more recent outsider oddball songsters like Prine, Ben Weaver, or poetic lyricist Alejandro Escovedo, whose work Brown would champion toward the end of his life. Invested in all manner of writers and uninterested in categories, Brown’s influence was such that without him there might never have been writers like William Gay or Tom Franklin, just as without Flannery O’Connor and Harry Crews there might never have been that writer called Larry Brown. We should be thankful for that particular lineage, and the places from which such writing occurs, without which we would be that much the poorer.
Woody Haut is the author ofPulp Culture: Hardboiled Fiction and the Cold War (1995), Neon Noir: Contemporary American Crime Fiction (1999), Heartbreak and Vine: The Fate of Hardboiled Writers in Hollywood (2002), and of the novels Cry For a Nickel, Die For a Dime (2014) and Days of Smoke (2017).