Larry Brown is not for the faint-hearted or those who like happy endings or strong doses of reality. That’s probably why (a) you may have never heard of him and (b) Hollywood has yet to latch onto one of his novels.
Because he was from Mississippi (Brown died of a heart attack in 2004, at 53), the inevitable comparisons to other Southern writers has often been made. Comparing Brown to someone like John Grisham, though, is like comparing a Jeep to a semi. To me, his writing evoked a sort of a bridge between William Faulkner and Harry Crews.
He wrote about what he knew — the everyday people of North Mississippi. And he did it with an unnerving authenticity. I don’t know when or how I discovered his work — probably Joe or Fay — but after I read the first page, I knew I was going to approach the craft of writing differently. Brown brought it, whatever “it” happened to be. Whatever it was, it was unfailingly real. His Mississippi wasn’t mint juleps and money and status. It was, more often that not, whiskey, handguns and hard times. He wrote about the people without turning them into stereotypes or sliding into sentimentality. His characters were flawed; that is, human. They seldom got what they wanted, but often got what they deserved. His descriptions were flawless. From Joe:
“The old man could see beer cans lying in the ditches, where a thin green scum nourished the tan sagegrass that grew there. He was very thirsty, but there was no prospect of any kind of drink within sight. He who rarely drank water was almost ready to cry out for some now.
“He had his head down, plodding along like a mule in harness, and he walked very slowly into the back of his wife where she had stopped in the middle of the road.
“‘Why, yonder’s some beer,’ she said, pointing.
“He started to raise some curse against her without even looking, but then he looked. She was still pointing.
“‘Where?’ he said. His eyes moved wildly in his head.
“He looked where she was pointing and saw three or four bright red-and-white cans nestled among the grasses like Easter eggs. He stepped carefully down into the ditch, watchful for snakes. He stepped closer and stopped.”
But as much as I admire his writing — which makes you hear the crickets, feel the humidity and see the soybean fields — it was his commitment to becoming a better writer and his tenacity that earned my respect. Afflicted with terminal humility, he constantly sought to be a better writer.
I have many influences, but Larry Brown always seems to push his way to the front of the crowd.