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 of blacks who work in the north Mississippi woods poisoning trees for a lumber company. By night, he visits the whorehouses 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, daily hunger, and their parents’ bestiality. 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.
Larry Brown’s territory is north Mississippi’s back roads connecting Oxford, Tupelo, and Bruce; its dark woods sheltering rabbit, possum, squirrel, and deer; its old dwellings crumbling on the low rolling hills. Dumpsters decorate the crossroads. Small groceries offer one gas pump, beer, ice, cigarettes, sardines, Vienna sausages, Dixie cups.
He has earned critical acclaim for his brilliant antiwar novel, Dirty Work, and for his short stories about men who ride the back roads in pickup trucks, their Igloo coolers close at hand, their hunting dogs in back. The failed and forgotten, the boozers, brawlers, wife-beaters, the no-counts. That he understands and dramatizes their redemption is the basis of his power as a writer. Now, in Joe, Brown unleashes the full power of his talent and creates this story of the bond between one such man riding those roads and a boy who walks them.
The themes in Joe are big ones—good, evil, temptation, sacrifice, and redemption—the themes of great literature. This is a novel that will be counted in that company.