June 16, 2017 • • category: Algonquin Books Blog
Dwight Garner’s wonderful “American Beauties” column in The New York Times has reminded longstanding fans of the beauty and brilliance of Larry Brown’s writing and introduced him to millions of readers who missed this talented author, gone too soon. Media (both social and traditional) has been buzzing with talk of Larry Brown.
At Algonquin, nothing makes us happier. We loved bringing Larry’s writing to the world. A Southern writer who defied the stereotypes and wrote the universal. The writer you recommend to the reluctant reader, to the dude who doesn’t cotton to “literature.” The writer you recommend to the voracious reader, to the dad who keeps a card catalog for his home library.
And Father’s Day weekend is the perfect time to revisit Larry’s books. As Garner put it about Larry’s memoir, On Fire (the book he calls “a gateway drug”): “He felt life deeply, had a vast understanding of his world and paid attention to what mattered. His basic decency shines through these pages.”
Here a look at Larry Brown’s books:
Joe: Joe Ransom, nearing fifty, lives hard and likes danger. A drinker, a gambler, a fighter, he’s using up what little luck he has left. He drives his pickup too fast, draws his gun too quick. By day he’s foreman of a crew who work in the north Mississippi woods poisoning trees for a lumber company. By night, he visits the brothels and gambling dens hidden in the woods back up off the road.
Gary Jones estimates his own age to be about fifteen. Born luckless, he lives off discards and garbage. His father, an itinerant farmworker, is as evil as men come. His mother is insane from ancient grief. Their children have known only an endless road and daily hunger. It’s up to the boy to provide, so he’s looking for work that pays—and a truck to get it.
When their paths cross, Joe Ransom offers Gary Jones a chance just as his own chances have dwindled to almost nothing.
Nicholas Cage brought Joe to vivid life in the movie based on the book. The book unleashes the full power of Brown’s talent and creates this story of the bond between one such man riding those roads and a boy who walks them.
Facing the Music: Larry’s first book, was originally published in 1988 to wide critical acclaim. As the St. Petersburg Times review pointed out, the central theme of these ten stories “is the ageless collision of man with woman, woman with man — with the frequent introduction of that other familiar couple, drinking and violence. Most often ugly, love is nevertheless graceful, however desperate the situation.”
There’s some glare from the brutally bright light Larry Brown shines on his subjects. But for those readers who are willing to look, unblinkingly, along with the writer, there are unusual rewards.
This is the work of a writer unafraid to gaze directly at characters challenged by crisis and pathology. But for readers who are willing to look, unblinkingly, along with the writer, there are unusual rewards.
A Miracle of Catfish: Larry Brown has been a force in American literature since taking critics by storm with his debut collection, Facing the Music, in 1988. His subsequent work—five novels, another story collection, and two books of nonfiction—continued to bring extraordinary praise and national attention to the writer New York Newsday called a “master.”
In November 2004, Brown sent the nearly completed manuscript of his sixth novel to his literary agent. A week later, he died of a massive heart attack. He was fifty-three years old.
A Miracle of Catfish is that novel. Brown’s trademarks—his raw detail, pared-down prose, and characters under siege—are all here.
This beautiful, heartbreaking anthem to the writer’s own North Mississippi land and the hard-working, hard-loving, hard-losing men it spawns is the story of one year in the lives of five characters—an old farmer with a new pond he wants stocked with baby catfish; a bankrupt fish pond stocker who secretly releases his forty-pound brood catfish into the farmer’s pond; a little boy from the trailer home across the road who inadvertently hooks the behemoth catfish; the boy’s inept father; and a former convict down the road who kills a second time to save his daughter.
That Larry Brown died so young, and before he could see A Miracle of Catfish published, is a tragedy. That he had time to enrich the legacy of his work with this remarkable book is a blessing.
Dirty Work: Dirty Work is the story of two men, strangers—one white, the other black. Both were born and raised in Mississippi. Both fought in Vietnam. Both were gravely wounded. Now, twenty-two years later, the two men lie in adjacent beds in a VA hospital.Over the course of a day and a night, Walter James and Braiden Chaney talk of memories, of passions, of fate. With great vision, humor, and courage, Brown writes mostly about love in a story about the waste of war.
Fay: She’s had no education, hardly any shelter, and you can’t call what her father’s been trying to give her since she grew up “love.” So, at the ripe age of seventeen, Fay Jones leaves home.
She lights out alone, wearing her only dress and rotting sneakers, carrying a purse with a half pack of cigarettes and two dollar bills. Even in 1985 Mississippi, two dollars won’t go far on the road. She’s headed for the bright lights and big times and even she knows she needs help getting there. But help’s not hard to come by when you look like Fay.
There’s a highway patrolman who gives her a lift, with a detour to his own place. There are truck drivers who pull over to pick her up, no questions asked. There’s a crop duster pilot with money for a night or two on the town. And finally there’s a strip joint bouncer who deals on the side.
At the end of this suspenseful, compulsively readable novel, there are five dead bodies stacked up in Fay’s wake. Fay herself is sighted for the last time in New Orleans. She’ll make it, whatever making it means, because Fay’s got what it takes: beauty, a certain kind of innocent appeal, and the instinct for survival.
Set mostly in the seedy beach bars, strip joints, and massage parlors of Biloxi, Mississippi, back before the casinos took over, Fay is a novel that only Larry Brown, the reigning king of Grit Lit, could have written. As the New York Times Book Review once put it, he’s “a writer absolutely confident of his own voice. He knows how to tell a story.”
Billy Ray’s Farm: In his first work of nonfiction since the acclaimed On Fire, Brown aims for nothing short of ruthlessly capturing the truth of the world in which he has always lived. In the prologue to the book, he tells what it’s like to be constantly compared with William Faulkner, a writer with whom he shares inspiration from the Mississippi land. The essays that follow show that influence as undeniable. Here is the pond Larry reclaims and restocks on his place in Tula. Here is the Oxford bar crowd on a wild goose chase to a fabled fishing event. And here is the literary sensation trying to outsmart a wily coyote intent on killing the farm’s baby goats. Woven in are intimate reflections on the Southern musicians and writers whose work has inspired Brown’s and the thrill of his first literary recognition.
But the centerpiece of this book is the title essay which embodies every element of Larry Brown’s most emotional attachments-to the family, the land, the animals. This is a book for every Larry Brown fan. It is also an invaluable book for every reader interested in how a great writer responds, both personally and artistically, to the patch of land he lives on.
Father and Son: Father and Son tells the story of five days following Glen Davis’s return to the small Mississippi town where he grew up. Five days. In this daring psychological thriller, the are five days you’ll never forget.
Convicted and sentenced on a vehicular homicide charge, Glen is the bad seed — the haunted, angry, drunken, and dangerous son of Virgil and Emma Davis. Bobby Blanchard is the sheriff, as different from Glen as can be imagined, but in love with the same woman — the mother of Glen’s illegitimate son.
Before he’s been back in town thirty-six hours, Glen has robbed his war-crippled father, bullied and humiliated his younger brother, and rejected his son, David. Bobby finds himself sorting through the mayhem Glen leaves in his wake — a murdered bar owner, a rape, Glen’s terrorized family, and the little boy who needs a father. And, as he gets closer and closer to the murderous Glen, tension builds like a Mississippi thunderstorm about to break loose.
This classic face-off of good against evil is told in the clear, unflinching voice that won Larry Brown some of literature’s most prestigious awards. And, reverberating with dark excitement, biblical echoes, and a fast, cinematic pacing, this novel puts a new side of his genius on display — the ability to build suspense to an almost unbearable pitch.
Father and Son is the story of a powerfully complex kinship, an exhilarating and heart-stopping story.
On Fire: On January 6, 1990, after seventeen years on the job, award-winning novelist Larry Brown quit the Oxford, Mississippi, Fire Department. With three published books to his credit and a fourth nearly finished, he made the risky decision to try life as a full-time writer. On Fire, his first work of nonfiction, looks back on his life as a full-time firefighter. Unflinching accounts of daily trauma – from the blistering heat of burning trailer homes to the crunch of broken glass at crash scenes – catapult readers into the hard reality that has driven Larry Brown.
As firefighter and fireman-turned-author, as husband and hunter, and as father and son, Brown offeres insights into the choices men face pursuing their life’s work. And, in the forthright style we expect from Larry Brown, his diary builds incrementally and forcefully to the explanation of how one man who regularly confronted death began to burn with the desire to write about life.
On Fire is a book in which an extraordinarily gifted writer looks back and reflects on the violence of his life as a fireman. Thoreau said it one way: “However mean your life is, meet it and live it.” Larry Brown says it another: You have to meet the thing, is what it is…and for the firefighter it is fire. It has to be faced and defeated so that you prove to yourself that you meet the measure of the job. You cannot turn your back on it, as much as you would like to be in cooler air.