Brown, (William) Larry 1951-2004
BROWN, (William) Larry 1951-2004
PERSONAL: Born July 9, 1951, in Oxford, MS; died of a heart attack, November 24, 2004, in Oxford, MS; son of Knox (a farmer) and Leona (a postmaster and store owner; maiden name, Barlow) Brown; married Mary Annie Coleman (a secretary), August 17, 1974; children: Billy Ray, Shane, LeAnne. Education: Attended University of Mississippi, 1982. Religion: Methodist. Hobbies and other interests: Hunting.
CAREER: Oxford Fire Department, Oxford, MS, fire fighter, 1973–90, captain, 1986–90; writer, 1990–. Worked variously as a carpenter, lumberjack, fence builder, carpet cleaner, house painter, hay hauler, and store employee. Speaker at Fifth Biennial Conference on Southern Literature, Chattanooga, TN, 1989; guest on Today show, National Broadcasting Company (NBC-TV), 1989. Military service: U.S. Marine Corps, 1970–72.
AWARDS, HONORS: Mississippi Institute of Arts and Letters award, 1990, for Facing the Music; Mississippi Library Association award, for Dirty Work; Southern Book Award, 1992 and American Library Association notable book, 1992, both for Joe; Southern Book Award, 1997, for Father and Son; Reader's Digest award, 1999; Artist's Achievement Award, Mississippi Governor's Awards, 2000.
Facing the Music (stories), Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill (Chapel Hill, NC), 1988.
Dirty Work (novel), Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill (Chapel Hill, NC), 1989.
Big Bad Love (stories), Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill (Chapel Hill, NC), 1990.
Joe (novel), Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill (Chapel Hill, NC), 1991, 2003.
On Fire: A Personal Account of Life and Death and Choices (memoir), Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill (Chapel Hill, NC), 1994.
Father and Son (novel), Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill (Chapel Hill, NC), 1996.
Fay (novel), Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill (Chapel Hill, NC), 2000.
Billy Ray's Farm: Essays from a Place Called Tula, Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill (Chapel Hill, NC), 2001.
The Rabbit Factory (novel), Free Press (New York, NY), 2003.
Also author of play adaptation of Dirty Work. Work represented in anthologies, including Best American Short Stories, 1989, edited by Margaret Atwood and Shannon Ravenel, Houghton Mifflin (Boston, MA), 1989; contributor of short stories to literary journals and periodicals, including Carolina Quarterly, Chattahoochee Review, Easyrider, Fiction International, Greensboro Review, Mississippi Review, Paris Review, St. Andrews Review, and Twilight Zone.
ADAPTATIONS: Works adapted for audio include Fay, read by Tom Stechschulte, Recorded Books, 2001, and The Rabbit Factory, read by Tom Stechschulte, Recorded Books, 2003.
SIDELIGHTS: Critically acclaimed for his raw, realistic tales of the rural South, Larry Brown depicted people not "the way they should be, but the unfortunate way they often are," according to Barry Walters in Village Voice. Brown's characters were ordinary and poor, living with marital strife, suicide, alcoholism, the scars of war, and coping in ways that range from resignation to tired faith. Brown did not start out with such down-to-earth subjects, however. When he decided to begin writing, his reading consisted largely of westerns, racy best-sellers, and Stephen King horror novels. His own first try at a novel concerned a marauding bear in a national park. Numerous publishers turned it down before Brown finally found success with topics closer to home. His father's shattering experiences during World War II helped inspire the author's much-lauded first novel, Dirty Work, and the lives and struggles of people he knows or has heard about have worked their way into numerous short stories.
Brown began his writing career while working as a fire fighter in the small Mississippi town of Oxford, and had no literary background except his years of avid reading. He taught himself to write by studying the fiction of writers such as Raymond Carver, Flannery O'Connor, and William Faulkner, the last another Mississippi native with whom Brown is sometimes compared. He also read books about his craft and got a bit of formal education, attending classes at the University of Mississippi. Writing extensively, Brown developed what Peter Applebome in the New York Times called "a sophisticated sense of how to craft a story" to go along with his "natural ear for dialogue and an indelible, rough-edged sense of place."
Brown's first book, the collection Facing the Music, emerged in 1988, garnering "considerable acclaim," according to Rick Bass in the New York Times Book Review. The tales introduce lower-middle-class characters who, as Walters put it, "sleepwalk through his stories, waiting for catastrophe to wake them up." Alcohol, fantasy, sex, and religion all provide ways to escape from everyday life. Even when catastrophe strikes, some of Brown's characters attempt to ignore it. In one story, a wife who has had a mastectomy tries to arouse in her husband the affection she needs, but he immerses himself in a television show. One of the distinguishing features of the stories, observed Walters, is the writing itself. "Although Brown argues that life is artless, his prose isn't." The critic noted the various ways Brown approaches his subjects, such as using poetic construction, alternating viewpoints, and other techniques to get at his characters' essence.
With the novel Dirty Work, Brown "accomplished that rarest of feats, following a strong first work with an even stronger second one," observed Bass. Intensely focused, the novel takes place entirely within a Veterans' Administration hospital where two casualties of the Vietnam War, one black and one white, talk about their lives and situations over the course of little more than a day. An African American, Braiden Chaney lost his arms and legs when he was machine-gunned in the war more than twenty years earlier, while Walter James, white, received a serious head wound and is now badly scarred and prone to blackouts and seizures. Both are from poor Mississippi towns and thus suffered before the war as well as after. "Using two distinctly different narrative voices," wrote Marc Leepson in the Washington Post, Brown weaves "a gripping and virtually seamless story" that captures the characters' lives.
"There has been no antiwar novel—certainly no first novel—quite like Dirty Work since Dalton Trumbo's Johnny Got His Gun, which was published fifty years ago," wrote Herbert Mitgang in the New York Times, referring to a National Book award-winning novel about a quadruple amputee. While Leepson deemed Dirty Work "a novel of the first order," other reviewers singled out Brown's authentic language and accurate portrayal of the war for special praise. Bass noted the book's emotional honesty. "In it, griefs and joys are met not at a delicate, self-consciously artistic angle but head-on, with a force that is both subtle and powerful—and above all compassionate." Dirty Work "is not always pleasant to read," warned Leepson. "Yet the writing, the characters, and the plot are so compelling that you can't help but stay with the book until its conclusion."
In Big Bad Love Brown returned to the short-story form to examine "the death of love in marriage," wrote Clancy Sigal in the Washington Post Book World. The novel is peopled with beer-drinking, depressed Southern men and their demanding, vindictive, or just plain dull women. Sigal noted that "almost all the stories point to or spring from the author's angry despair at love gone wrong as irretrievably as seasons advance…. There is a bitterness so acrid it comes out the other end as purgation, even laughter." Recognizing Brown as a "very good" writer, Sigal nonetheless expressed disappointment that the women in the stories are not human enough. "It's the old dilemma of criticizing a good writer … for failing to do something he never set out to do in the first place," he explained. Other aspects of the stories, such as Brown's honesty and credibility, drew the critic's approval.
The protagonist of Joe is Joe Ransom, a recently divorced, nearly fifty-year-old man who spent several years in prison for assaulting a policeman. The hard-living, hard-drinking Joe also has a big heart, however. He manages a forest crew for paper manufacturer Weyerhauser. When he gives a temporary job to fifteen-year-old Gary Jones, he becomes mentor to a migrant laborer so poor he has never seen a toothbrush and whose abusive father confiscates his pay as soon as he earns it. Gary's mother is lost in grief over the death of another son, and the entire family is caught up in "a vicious cycle of hunger, violence, dependency, rootlessness, and shame," wrote Jay Watson in Mississippi Quarterly. A Publishers Weekly reviewer called the dialogue "as natural as spring water."
Paul Lyons reviewed Joe in Studies in American Fiction, calling the novel "an example of regionalism in Southern American literature without just being literary tourism or nostalgia. Joe depicts the poor, rural life of contemporary Mississippi and shows that nostalgia must not just be for a simpler, purer society but can be a blue-collar attachment for individual freedom without illusions about the past. The threat is loss through corporatism and a legal system stacked against the poor."
Sharing characters with the novel Joe, Fay finds a seventeen year old running away from her sexually abusive father and dysfunctional family. With just the clothes on her back and three dollars stuck in her bra, Fay hitchhikes toward her destination, Biloxi, Mississippi. One ride has disastrous consequences, and she is rescued by Sam Harris, a highway patrol officer who takes her home to his wife, Amy, who is grieving the loss of their own daughter. Fay becomes involved with Sam, then a series of other men as she sinks deeper into a life of exploitation, alcohol, and drugs. "There are no miracles, of course," wrote a Publishers Weekly critic, "but the raw power of this novel, the clear graphic accounts of both humble and perverted lives (in the bars and strip joints of Biloxi), is a triumph of realism and humane imagination."
The protagonist of Father and Son is Glen Davis, who, as the story opens, has been released from prison after serving time for running down a child in a car while he was drunk. Glen cares nothing for his own son and wants only sex from the boy's mother, Jewel. On the other hand, Sheriff Bobby Blanchard, the bastard son of Glen's father, Virgil Davis, loves Jewel and longs for recognition from the father Glen only hates. A Publishers Weekly critic commented that "it takes formidable talent to mesmerize readers of a novel that focuses on a deeply flawed, unsympathetic protagonist, but Brown succeeds triumphantly," creating "his most wise, human, and haunting work to date."
Brown recalled his seventeen years as an Oxford fireman in On Fire: A Personal Account of Life and Death and Choices. Smithsonian reviewer Karl Ackerman called Brown "one of the more gifted storytellers of our time…. Certainly there are stories of fires here. And auto wrecks. In all of them Brown catches the telling detail…. What separates this book from the scores of other volumes in the ever-expanding genre of catastrophe literature is Brown's honesty, sense of humor, and gift for language. Here, too, he writes about his ambivalence about hunting, his failings as a husband and father, his view of life and death, and his long struggle to teach himself the craft of writing."
The title of Billy Ray's Farm: Essays from a Place Called Tula is a reference to the author's son as well as Brown's ongoing attempt to become a successful farmer. The essays reflect Brown's recollections of childhood, love of Mississippi, the people and animals with whom he has shared his life, and the writing life and writers who have inspired him, including Harry Crews and Madison James.
Brown shows his softer side with Rabbit Factory, a novel set in Memphis and described as "full of unexpected pleasures," by Library Journal critic Patrick Sullivan. The characters include Arthur, a seventy-year-old man whose young wife, Helen, seeks sex elsewhere; Eric, who works in a pet store and becomes something of a son to Arthur and a lover to Helen; a prostitute whose customers include a young sailor who dreams of marrying her; a housekeeper with a plastic leg; and assorted gangsters, including Frankie, who, like Eric, has as a close companion a dog whose character is fully developed by Brown. A Kirkus Reviews contributor wrote that "Brown's Fay remains his best—but it's good to see him extending his range."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Brown, Larry, On Fire: A Personal Account of Life and Death and Choices, Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill (Chapel Hill, NC), 1994.
Contemporary Literary Criticism, Volume 73, Gale (Detroit, MI), pp. 19-27.
Contemporary Southern Writers, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 1999.
America, April 5, 1997, Ron Hansen, review of Father and Son, p. 32.
Booklist, July, 1996, John Mort, review of Father and Son, p. 1779; July, 2003, Brad Hooper, review of The Rabbit Factory, p. 1844.
Insight on the News, July 30, 2001, Stephen Goode, review of Billy Ray's Farm: Essays from a Place Called Tula, p. 26.
Kirkus Reviews, July 15, 2003, review of The Rabbit Factory, p. 923.
Library Journal, February 15, 2000, Robert E. Brown, review of Fay, p. 194; August, 2003, Patrick Sullivan, review of The Rabbit Factory, p. 127.
Mississippi Quarterly, fall, 2002, Jay Watson, review of Joe, p. 497.
New York Times, September 23, 1989, Peter Applebome; March 5, 1990, Herbert Mitgang, review of Dirty Work.
New York Times Book Review, October 1, 1989, Rick Bass, review of Facing the Music and Dirty Work, p. 15.
Publishers Weekly, July 19, 1991, review of Joe, p. 46; October 11, 1991, Bob Summer, "Larry Brown: The Former Firefighter Talks about His Long Apprenticeship as a Writer" (interview), p. 46; June 24, 1996, review of Father and Son, p. 44; January 10, 2000, review of Fay, p. 43; March 5, 2001, review of Billy Ray's Farm, p. 74; June, 2003, review of The Rabbit Factory, p. 43.
Smithsonian, April, 1994, Karl Ackerman, review of On Fire: A Personal Account of Life and Death and Choices, p. 145.
Studies in American Fiction, spring, 1997, Paul Lyons, review of Joe, p. 101.
Village Voice, November 22, 1988, Barry Walter, review of Facing the Music, p. 56.
Washington Post, August 14, 1989, Marc Leepson, review of Dirty Work.
Washington Post Book World, December 23, 1990, Clancy Sigal, review of Big Bad Love.
Whole Earth Review, spring, 1995, review of On Fire, p. 108.
Writer, October, 2001, Marc Anderson, review of Billy Ray's Farm, p. 49.
Algonquin Books Web site, http://www.algonquin.com/ larrybrown (August 2, 2004), "Larry Brown."
Bookreporter.com, http://www.bookreporter.com/ (April 28, 2000), Joe Hartlaub, review of Billy Ray's Farm and interview with Brown.
The Rough South of Larry Brown (documentary film), written and directed by Gary Hawkins, Down-Home Entertainment/Blue Moon Films, 2002.