(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

When Algonquin Books was first marketing Larry Brown, it used his status as fireman-turned-writer to the firm’s advantage, and, indeed, Brown’s educational background is not the one usually associated with a writer. Brown’s self-education enabled him to stay true to himself and his art and follow his inclinations wherever they led him. Where they led him is into the same realm to which they led the major writer William Faulkner, who also came from Oxford, Mississippi, and into those “eternal verities of the human heart” of which Faulkner spoke so eloquently and which any enduring artist must plumb. Indeed, Brown denied the “Faulknerian” influence on his work, and it is not there in any but a superficial way. In an interview with Publishers Weekly, Brown, though flattered by the comparison with Faulkner, quite accurately pinpointed one of the major ways in which his work departs from Faulkner’s when he said that Faulkner “wrote about so much that went back before his time. I don’t get into that. I write about the here and now.” In fact, stylistically, Brown is far afield from Faulkner and reads much more like minimalist writer Raymond Carver, whose influence Brown readily acknowledges.

Sometimes difficult to pigeonhole—ranging as they do from the realism of “Facing the Music” to the humor of “Waiting for the Ladies” to the absurdist satire of “Discipline”—Brown’s stories nonetheless are of a piece when it comes to their clearheadedness and lack of sentimentality. Often criticized as bleak and violent, they mirror the isolation and lack of communication that characterize modern society. Despite the dark vision they frequently portray, Brown’s works also show the possibility of redemption and hope. As he says in an interview in The Southern Quarterly, his “fiction is about people surviving, about people proceeding out from calamity.”

Facing the Music

In an essay published in Publishing Research Quarterly and written with Brown and others, Shannon Ravenel notes that Facing the Music, Brown’s first book-length publication, was a departure for the publishing company, as it was a collection of short stories rather than a novel. The strength of the title story alone, however, allowed the editors to ignore “conventional wisdom.” Too harsh and biting to have been accepted by either The New Yorker or Esquire, the unconventional stories in the collection are varied, gritty, and, to use one of the terms most commonly associated with Brown’s work, “honest.” Spanning a number of voices—from that of an isolated husband refusing to deal with his wife’s mastectomy in “Facing the Music” to that of a young, African American, alcoholic mother in “Kubuku Rides (This Is It)” to that of Mr. Parker, jobless and friendless after his wife has him kill their dog in “Old Frank and Jesus” to that of a cynical (former) lover in “The End of Romance”—the stories all deal ultimately with what Brown, in an interview in...

(The entire section is 1249 words.)