(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

After one other fine novel, Dirty Work (1989), and two collections of gritty, tough-to-the-bone short stories, Facing the Music (1988) and Big Bad Love (1990), Larry Brown has written a breakthrough book simply entitled Joe. Literary critics’ approval has turned into well-deserved general acclaim with the publication of this seamless tale of the redemptive power of personal honor. Joe is that good, that well written, that profound, all in all the novel that fulfills the promise of Brown’s earlier efforts.

This book, however, requires no antecedents, not even those of William Faulkner, to whom the author is often compared. Joe creates its own world, one perhaps more familiar to connoisseurs of Southern literature, but one from which only the most squeamish or fastidious will turn away in horror. Rural Mississippi has an abundance of white columns and magnolias, long-necked women and courtly gentlemen, but that is not the milieu to which Larry Brown delivers his reader. This Mississippi is verdant, half-wild still, a place where a shotgun shack is a palace indeed for the poor whites and blacks who live off its county roads and in its pine forests. Peopled not by the bluebloods of romance but by the rednecks of reality, Brown’s Mississippi is a land of great beauty and great violence. There, men ride around in trucks stocked with shotgun racks and beer-laden coolers, and sometimes a good buddy along for company. There, Tammy Wynette is a goddess, Hank Williams a hero, and Elvis Presley a saint.

Brown re-creates this land in prose so apt that the reader sees its wild beauty, feels its social and economic tensions, and hears its distinctive voice. With “the shade deep and strong like a darker world within the outer,” Brown describes a “place of cane thickets and coon dens and the lairs of bobcats, where the sun at its highest cast no light over the rotted stumps and stagnant sloughs.” It is, then, a deceptive world, one where quiet beauty hides a noisome stench.

A product of this place, Joe Ransom is a man who literally draws his strength from prowling its back roads. He knows its forests; he is hired to defoliate them by a lumber company. He knows its people; he hires them for the crew that poisons the trees to make them harvestable. He is at home with its drunkards, its unemployables, its criminals and wastrels; of them, he is not one of them. Middle-aged, an ex-con himself, a hard drinker and a fighter, Joe makes enough money to go his own way, is thick-necked enough to get away with it, and lives by his own rules even when threatened with a return to the penitentiary. Divorced, he still loves his wife but realizes that she is probably right to leave him. Not even for love would he change his hard-fisted, thirsty ways.

His wife, lonely in her freedom, his daughter, pregnant with an illegitimate child, and his son who stays away from him, all seem unable to direct him to any act he does not want to perform. They are characters, meaningful and important in his life, but people for whom he cannot be other than he is: “They were like dreams, real but not real. He closed his eyes and it all passed away.”

No more real to Joe is the woman his daughter’s age with whom he shacks up, the rich widows to whom he gives his time when he has it, or the whores whom he visits when he has the need. More real, perhaps, is the vicious dog he alone can control with cuffs and kicks. Not entirely agreeable or tractable, Joe is his own man, strong enough to dig buckshot from his own bicep, generous enough to share his cigarettes and beer with anyone who asks, mean enough to unleash his crazed pit bull in a bordello.

Brown builds this character as effectively through dialogue as through narrative. Most telling is his friendship with the storekeeper John Coleman, another independent sort with whom he goes for a long, drunken ride. They speak as much in silences as in words. “They rode and drank. Joe sucked a cut knuckle and wished for his dog to lick it. John Coleman agreed that it would help.” Joe does not need to answer when John explains a point of personal pride, “God knows I’ve done plenty of drinking and stuff in my time, but I be damn if I ever tried to cheat anybody out of any money.” Just so, John does not need to caution Joe when they are stopped by a callow deputy. With redneck empathy, John understands that Joe “wouldn’t let anybody mess with him, he didn’t care who. And he was drinking.”

Even in the narrative itself,...

(The entire section is 1870 words.)