This story came so close to being accepted. Majority rules and many people who read it misinterpreted it. We have had an argument for two weeks here over it. "White Girls with Black Asses," do you think you could tone that down a little bit? .... And although it works wonderfully, what is the reason that Cleve beats his wife? He is always remorseful after he does it, enough to where he lashes himself to the tree in the lightning storm. Some people were revulsed by it.... You have great talent, and with material like this you will need great stamina. --From "92 Days," by Larry Brown (collected in Big Bad Love)Larry Brown has great stamina. He is a writer as unlike Samuel Beckett as one might imagine, but I can think of no writer who more embodies Beckett's famous advice about writing: "Try again. Fail again. Fail better."
Brown has published seven books in the past 12 years, all well-received, and in doing so built for himself a considerable readership (since John Grisham left town, Brown has become the most popular living writer in Oxford, Mississippi -- no mean feat in William Faulkner's hometown, where novelists are as plentiful as kudzu leaves). He's earned praise from and comparisons to such kindred-spirit novelists as Barry Hannah, Willie Morris, and Harry Crews. Brown, in fact, dedicated a book to Crews, calling him "my uncle in all ways but blood."
Brown's fourth novel, FAY, is the story of 17-year-old Fay Jones, who descends from the hills of northern Mississippi (and a horror-show family situation there) and means to walk all the way to Biloxi. She is a naïve and ferociously unworldly kid, but she's also cast-iron tough. Like any good pilgrim, she gets involved with several people along the way: drunk, trailer-dwelling fishermen; a state patrolman and his wife; a pilot; a bouncer at a strip-club. The book reads as briskly as an Elmore Leonard novel and yet also begs comparison to Faulkner's Light in August. It's high praise (to paraphrase Flannery O'Connor's remark about the ill-advisability of Southern writers inviting comparison with Mr. Faulkner) that Brown manages to avoid getting his mule and wagon stuck on the same track the Dixie Limited is roaring down.
None of this much smacks of failure. And while seven books in 12 years does require stamina, it's less impressive than the sort of stamina that preceded it.
As a high school senior, Brown failed English and did not graduate with his class. After summer school, he joined the Marines. After that, he came home and worked a series of manual-labor jobs. He joined the Oxford Fire Department. He decided he wanted to be a writer. He never went to college. He decided he could teach himself.
Brown's first novel, like most of ours, wasn't really his first novel. It was not his second, either. Or his third. Or his fourth, his fifth, or his sixth.
It was his seventh.
Throughout that excruciating process, Brown worked 48-hour shifts for the fire department and also, because he had a family to feed, day-labor jobs hauling hay, building houses, and whatever else he could find. Still, he tried to write every day. All he had to show for all that work were stacks of unpublished manuscripts, a large postage bill, and one published short story (in a biker mag called Easy Riders). He stayed married. He kept trying to fail better.
The first novel concerned a man-eating grizzly bear in Yellowstone National Park. The second was about two entrepreneurial pot farmers in Tennessee. The third ventured into the supernatural, at which time Brown realized he needed help.
Almost no self-taught writers really are. Hemingway, for example, received private tutorials from Sherwood Anderson and Gertrude Stein, the greatest teachers of writing of his time. Larry Brown broke down and took a creative writing class at the University of Mississippi, from novelist Ellen Douglas.
Douglas not only exposed him to scores of novels and novelists he hadn't read but also got him to see how contrived his own work was, how "from the heart" it wasn't. Brown, after all, was a man who'd served in the Marines just as Vietnam was ending. He'd lived practically his whole life on the edge of a university town, an utter outsider to it. He knew first-hand the hard details about blue-collar life that, in a post-Raymond Carver world, a lot of young writers were trying to fake. As a firefighter, almost every shift brought him right into the center of human folly and loss: burned houses, wrecked cars, surprised corpses. And yet here he was, writing novel number four -- a boxing novel. It was his best book so far, but he knew nothing at all about boxing that he hadn't seen on TV.
After that, he failed better, and wrote a novel based on people he knew in the Mississippi woods. It came close to getting accepted, but it never did. His short stories were getting published. One landed in Best American Short Stories of 1989. The series editor of BASS then was Shannon Ravenel; she was also an editor at Algonquin, where she published his first collection, Facing the Music. By then he'd written another novel. Ravenel told him she had good news and bad news. The good was that the novel was pretty good. The bad was that it needed a massive revision.
By that time, though, he'd started working on a new book, and he wanted to see it through. Novel number seven. It was about two badly wounded Vietnam vets, and it was brilliant. It was called Dirty Work. Larry Brown was a published novelist.
He went back and rewrote the sixth one. It became his second novel, Joe.
Book sales took off. After 16 years, Brown quit fighting fires. He published his second book of short stories, Big Bad Love. Nine stories in the book feature blue-collar characters doing what Larry Brown's characters do: walk down the wrong roads and drink while they're driving and intersect with good and evil and sex and violence and run-ins with the law and death and Marlboros and Budweiser. And every protagonist's initials are "L.B." All those things are present in the tenth and longest story, too, but in "92 Days" the protagonist is a writer (Leon Barlow), and while the plot is invented, the writer's darkly comic struggles bear more than a little resemblance -- right down to the tone of the rejection letters that fill the mailbox -- to Larry Brown's.
Leon Barlow is still learning how to fail better. Larry Brown has failed well enough to have earned his success, and succeeded amply enough to have earned the title "writer's writer."