For the last couple years or so, every time I’ve turned around Larry Brown has been there to greet me. If I opened up a magazine, his long, grizzled face would be there, grimacing at me like a drunken hillbilly. If I eavesdropped on a random conversation at a grocery store, his hard-times Southern fiction would be the hot topic of conversation. Every time I looked up, Brown’s mug was either plastered to a billboard, outlined in clouds, or chiseled into the granite of a mountainside. His presence has been inescapable.
So, who is this Larry Brown, anyway? Well, first off, he’s a Southern writer, and like all Southern writers, he’s been compared ad nauseum to William Faulkner. That part is pretty much unavoidable. Yet Brown’s situation is admittedly more fascinating than that of the hordes of shlocky Southern scribes seeking to become the next bard of Yoknapatawpha County. Most people who’ve read Brown aren’t shy about sharing their opinion that he’s one of the greatest writers of his generation. A few commentators have actually suggested that he’s quite a bit better than Faulkner himself. Blessedly, though, Larry Brown doesn’t write even remotely like the great granddaddy of Southern letters. He is his own bird, through and through. With the release of his latest novel, Fay, I’ve finally had the chance to find out all about this new darling writer of the South. After plowing through this fat book, I’ve come to the conclusion that Faulkner and Brown can’t be legitimately compared. They’re just too different in every way.
Fay Jones is a backwoods gal with holes in her sneakers, born into a dirt-poor family of migrant workers. When her drunkard daddy tries to rape her in a cabin in northern Mississippi, Fay decides it’s time to hit the road. Though she doesn’t have much worldly knowledge and doesn’t know what she’s going to do to support herself, she decides to head down south to Biloxi, because she wants to see what life’s like on the coast. Fay’s got two dollars in her pocket and not a lot going for her, except that she’s drop-dead gorgeous and has an instinct for self-preservation.
In his previous work, Larry Brown built up quite a reputation for his ability to realistically depict the rough lives of criminals and the rural poor. In Fay, he shows off that ability on almost every page, taking us on a jacked up tour of violence, alcoholism, drug addiction, poverty, strip clubs, prostitution and rough sex without love, racing across a wide landscape of despair that’s relentless from page one to epilogue.
Part of the legend of Larry Brown is that he supposedly lived this stuff, but I don’t know; it might just be tough guy posturing. Though Brown has obviously put a lot of heart into trying to make these characters and situations authentic, at times the level of brutality seems just slightly overdone. The men Fay comes into contact with are just a little too disgusting. As individuals, they’re totally believable. En masse they’re just a tad too excessive to take seriously. (Of the five men Fay meets in her travels, four of them are killers or rapists.) Still, the novel is mostly a gripping ride through the seedy underworld of Mississippi trailer trash culture. You certainly won’t be bored.
Born in Faulkner’s hometown of Oxford, Miss., Larry Brown served in the Marine Corps in the early 1970s before getting a job at the Oxford Fire Department. After achieving the rank of captain, Brown resigned in 1990 to write full time. His short stories have been collected in two volumes, Facing the Music and Big Bad Love. Brown has also published three novels—Dirty Work, Joe, and Father and So—and a memoir, On Fire, all to wide acclaim.
Unlike Faulkner, Brown doesn’t seem to have an experimental bone in his literary corpus, but there’s nothing necessarily wrong with that. Brown’s prose is straight up, primal, yet also immensely disciplined. His dialogue always sounds natural, and what’s more, Fay feels like the real Mississippi. When you’re done with this one, it’ll be hard to rid yourself of the lilting, backwoods Southern accent rambling inside your skull.