Larry Brown’s stark and vivid rendering of the inner lives of poor, hard-living white Southerners has commanded the attention of serious readers since his first disturbing stories came onto the literary scene in small magazines and in the story collections Facing the Music and Big Bad Love. He has followed it with the novels Dirty Work and Joe, and the short haunting memoir On Fire, about the seventeen years he spent as a fireman and emergency rescue technician in the hometown he shares with William Faulkner: Oxford, Mississippi, which is sometimes called, only partly in jest, “the Vatican of Southern writing.”
Though Brown’s work follows the basic settings, speech, and themes of traditional Southern fiction—the tangled loyalties of family and community, the pressures of history, soul- grinding poverty and economic struggle, and Southerners’ visceral bond with the land—his work is remarkable for what it does not contain. Both stereotype and sentimentality are virtually absent from Brown’s writing, as is, strangely, the kind of lyrical exalted language that has become synonymous with Southern authors from Faulkner on down.
Larry Brown achieves his sometimes stunning dramatic effects not by soaring turns of phrase but by the gradual accretion of an undeniable reality, a vision that is severe and tender in equal measure, as in this description of a sheriff going to a remote place where a child’s body has been found:
They got into the cruiser and drove out into the country to meet the coroner and his helpers at a lonely and rain-swept crossroads where the hawks had folded their wings to sit in the fence posts and regard the sky with their cold bright eyes. Shoals of water were riffling off the fields and the day was gray and dark, the creeks rising, foaming, the beavers swimming strongly with sticks in their mouths as the men crossed the little bridges in their cars and cast a glance down into the muddy currents. In a small procession they drove to that place where he had already been and unloaded their shovels, and they went down through the woods.
Father and Son, set in 1968, takes Brown’s familiar fictional territory to a new level of scope and complexity, with the slow-motion crime spree of a “bad seed” named Glen Davis bringing into focus the interconnected loves, hates, and betrayals of three generations of families in a small Mississippi town whose name is never given.
“Puppy” Davis, ever-hopeful peacemaker between the estranged Glen and their father Virgil, picks up Glen at the local bus station after his release from prison and gives him the requisite pep talk about making a fresh start and putting his life back together.
By nightfall on the first of the five days the novel covers, Glen has already openly taunted the sheriff who arrested him, vandalized and stolen from a bar owner he feels has mistreated him, and purchased a case of beer with the intent to drink it while considering his next move.
The stark final sentence of that chapter sets the stage for what is about to happen: “While he was sitting there thinking everything over, he figured he might as well finish it, now that it was started.”
“It” is the tragedy that Glen seems to have been advancing toward from an early age. As the narrative unfolds, readers learn that his father—likewise a heavy drinker who had violent brawls with the young Glen—was a prisoner of war in Bataan during World War II and still suffers physically and mentally from that long-ago torture, as well as from more recent wounds. Glen, while not yet a teenager, accidentally killed a third brother while playing with a shotgun he thought was unloaded. Virgil’s wife Emma has died while Glen was in prison.
Before Glen reluctantly pays his father a visit, at Puppy’s urging, he stops by the town diner to see Jewel, who works there. He and Jewel had a son before he left, and she promised to wait for him. Even though Glen spends his first night home with her, he brushes off her attempt to make him acquainted with David and lets her know he is after sex, not marriage. “No talk of marriage again,” Glen muses. “He’d explain to her that it wasn’t good, that it promised things it couldn’t deliver, that it led to people hating each other and doing bad things to each other and then there were children and things could happen to them so that what you wound up having was not what you’d hoped for to start, a long life, happiness, good times, no. You could rock along for a while and think everything was just fine and then turn around and you were in the g———n penitentiary.”