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Wednesday, 18 February 2015 15:46

Larry Brown earns his spot in Southern pantheon

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bookOne of my bookshelves is reserved for books that I have not read, but that I am saving for some special event. What I want is the pleasure of reading without a deadline hanging over my head. I actually buy books and put them on the shelf, reserved for “when I get the flu.”  

Joe has been on that shelf for more than 15 years. Each time I take it down and read a page or two, I put it back. “No, that is too good to waste by “speed reading.” Take your time. OK, the time has come.

Larry Brown is an honored writer and is usually listed among Southern writers of significant merit. But the recognition came late, primarily because Larry Brown was born in Oxford, Mississippi, the birthplace of William Faulkner. This “handicap” only made Larry work with more determination, and there are several documentary films on YouTube that give details about his persistence. Brown kept an assortment of “day jobs” to buy the groceries, but his stubborn persistence continued.  Indeed, he may have collected the most impressive collection of rejection letters of any writer.

When success came, it was startling, with almost a half-dozen novels published in succession: Dirty Work, (1989) Fathers and Sons,(1996) Joe (1991) and Fay (2000). Critics usually compared him to Cormac McCarthy and Harry Crews. Then, Hollywood expressed an interest in his work. Larry was just beginning to enjoy his new-found popularity and speak with confidence about his plans for the future when he died suddenly of a heart attack in 2004.

When Joe opens, a desperate family of squatters are struggling along a Mississippi road in the blistering heat. The family consists of a listless and incoherent woman, her two daughters and a teenage son. The father, Wade, appears callous and indifferent to his family and is intent on scavenging. Gradually, the reader learns that these five people have been on the road for years, and they are attempting to return to a derelict house where they once lived. It becomes obvious that Wade is afflicted with a moral degeneracy that is so profound he has become a social outcast.

Like Jeeter Lester in Erskine Caldwell’s Tobacco Road and Lester Ballard in Cormac McCarthy’s Child of God, Wade Jones has become bestial and unredeemable. However, there is a difference in Larry Brown’s depiction of helpless victims and malignant evil. There is a lack of compassion in Caldwell. Indeed, Tobacco Road often seems to possess a cruel humor. In Joe, the teenage son, Gary, struggles to pull the family together. As he builds a fire and feeds his deranged mother and feeble-minded sister, it is evident that he has replaced Wade as the “provider.” In the days following the return to the decaying house, it is Gary who will look for work.

The title of the book refers to Joe Ransom, who isn’t exactly a representative for moral rectitude, but in this bitter tale from the hardscrabble land of Mississippi, he manages to acquire a kind of nobility. Joe is a contractor for a black workforce with the dubious job of “poisoning trees.” It is brutal work and the purpose is to remove scrub timber from a large tract of land which will be reforested. Despite a violent temper and a propensity for drinking and womanizing, Joe seems to have a moral compass and despite the fact that he has spent time in prison (and seems fated to return), he has a reputation for fairness and honesty that makes him an ideal “boss.”  

In effect, this book focuses on three male characters: Wade, whose lack of humanity and concern for others has made him a “wolf among men;” Gary, Wade’s son, who, despite his environment, has a stubborn drive to survive and provide for his family; and Joe, who seems to retain an instinct for decency and becomes a kind of surrogate father to Gary when the boy becomes a part of Joe’s workforce. Although initially reluctant, Joe ends up helping the boy acquire food and helps the boy buy Joe’s old van for a nominal fee. For Gary, the van means independence and a new life.

Many of the scenes involving Wade have a kind of dark, gothic humor. There are references to his having sold a child in the past and in one surreal episode, he casually murders a homeless man. A scene in which he manages to attend a drunken party at a university has a kind of nightmarish setting in which Wade manages to escape without being arrested. When Joe discovers that Wade is pimping for his retarded daughter, it prompts Joe to intervene ... an act that will have tragic consequences.

It is quite possible that Larry Brown intended to write a series of novels that would be interlocking in much in the same manner that the Chicago writer James T. Farrell did with his Studs Lonigan series. Minor characters in early works would become the protagonists of their own story. For example, early in Joe, Gary’s sister, Fay, decides to abandon the destitute Jones family and survive on her own. It is noteworthy that one of Larry Brown’s novels written after Joe is Fay. Maybe I need to take that one on next.

Joe by Larry Brown. Algonquin Books, 1991. 345 pages

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