Larry Brown is an interesting figure with a way too short history in American literature. He was sort of discovered in the mid-80s, when he had a drawer full of unpublished stories. Some curating and careful editing got him a story collection (Facing the Music, which is very good) and a novel (Dirty Work, which is pretty good). He was a fire chief in Oxford, Mississippi (same town as William Faulkner), had no formal higher education, but obviously had an ear for language and dialogue and a sharp mind. He wrote three more novels, of which Joe, is one of them, and two more mostly complete novels that are a little more scattered, and another short story collection. Then in his early fifties he died of a heart attack, just a regular blue collar man living in the south kind of heart attack.
His writing is crisp and simply presented, and he seems to understand both what motivates and frustrates Southern white men. He tends not to write much in terms of Black characters, which is interesting in part because his white characters probably aren’t that interested in them anyway. He has a weird fascination for father figures, violence, and animals.
This novel starts with a seriously down and out family returning home to a small town in Mississippi. They are hard up but it becomes clear throughout that the adults would rather beg borrow or steal than work. Their teenage son is different, and when he finally gets a chance to maybe break free from them financially through working a chemical applicating crew, he jumps. He also jumps at the chance to befriend Joe Ransom, the crew leader. Joe is a kind man often on the wrong side of women, drinking, and the law, but he’s decent. The two form an earnest if brief friendship.
I grew up lower lower working class. My dad is definitely more Joe than the craven figure of Wade (the boy’s father), but less rural and slightly more educated. I have spent a lot of my life with people like the characters in the novel and so a lot of it rings true. It’s not looking to assess or blame situations, but merely write life as it is to a narrow view of people in the world. It’s good.
(Photo by Hubert Worley Jr)