There's No Success Like Failure...
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."
Brown, a former firefighter in Oxford, has written several novels and short-story collections all dedicated to the proposition that folks born south of the Mason-Dixon line are biochemically altered by this accident of geography. It predisposes them to overheated lives of hunting, boozing and hopeless love and enrolls its male chroniclers, like Brown, Harry Crews and Barry Hannah, in Hemingway's 3-F club of fishing, fighting and fornicating."
The New York Times Book Review
Gifted with brilliant descriptive ability, a perfect ear for dialogue, and an unflinching eye...stark, often funny...with a core as dark as a Delta midnight.
Dallas Morning News
It reads like a stud poker game of life, tension growing with the turning of each card.
Clear, simple and powerful.
The New Yorker
He is blunt and abrasive about subjects that tend to cause flinching. He tells stories in plain language.
New York Times Book Review
The model is Faulkner, but his influence has been absorbed and transcended.
A powerful tale of love and betrayal, family ties and brutal revenge.
He left the Oxford, Mississippi, fire department after his first novel was published. It paid off.
St. Louis Post-Dispatch
Cancel the competition for suspense thriller of the year. Larry Brown has already won it with Father and Son.
The Orlando Sentinel
So vividly written it is almost cinematic.
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
The South of Larry Brown (Dirty Work) is a country devoid of genteel manners and magnolia trees. His deeply flawed characters generally lack money, education and a fair chance at the pursuit of happiness, yet he portrays them square-on, with a restrained compassion that neither panders to nor patronizes their struggling, often violent lives. This saga of degradation and violence is his most powerful novel yet. It is the coming-of-age story of a young woman whose downward trajectory seems fated, despite the glimmers of luck that she hopes are her salvation. Fay Jones is 17 years old when she runs away from her sexually abusive father and the poor white family shack outside of Oxford, Miss. Dangerously innocent and naive about the world (she has never used a telephone or left a tip in a restaurant), she is stoic, resourceful and desperate to better herself. Like everyone else in this novel, she is addicted to beer and cigarettes; whiskey and dope will come later. And she is beautiful, which is both the source of opportunity and the limit of her aspirations. It seems almost too good to be true when trooper Sam Harris rescues Fay and takes her to his lakeside home. His wife, Amy, still grieving over the death of their teenage daughter, takes Fay under her wing. But Amy is an alcoholic, and in one of the car crashes that punctuate the novel--all caused by drunken drivers--she is killed. Though he is already involved with a predatory mistress, Sam falls in love with Fay and she with him; when Fay becomes pregnant; she has a brief vision of a safe and settled life. The cycle of events that ensue--a murder in self-defense, Fay's flight to Biloxi, sexual exploitation, several premeditated killings--are, in the force field of this story, inevitable and preordained. All his characters, including the decent, anguished Sam (who is heroic in his police work) and bewildered, frightened Fay, behave foolishly, rashly and badly. Yet Brown's laconic narrative is constructed on a merciful understanding of his characters' limitations. Though he takes a long time to get the plot under way, describing such mundane activities as fishing and police patrols in the detail necessary to make them clear, the narrative acquires tension and velocity and by the end the reader is mesmerized, waiting for a gun to go off, but praying for a miracle. There are no miracles, of course, but the raw power of this novel, the clear, graphic accounts of both humble and perverted lives (in the bars and strip joints of Biloxi), is a triumph of realism and a humane imagination. (Feb.) Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.
When 17-year-old Fay walks out on her abusive, dirt-poor backwoods family, she is taken in by Mississippi trooper Sam Harris and his wife, Amy. First a surrogate for a dead daughter, Fay is soon Sam's lover and becomes pregnant after Amy dies (in a car accident involving alcohol), but then, more or less in self-defense, she shoots and kills Sam's ex-lover while Sam is on patrol. She flees, again on foot, this time ending up with Aaron, a volatile, violent, and bulked-up bouncer and part-owner of a Biloxi strip joint. The magnetic Fay innocently draws (big) trouble in Brown's (Joe) hard-drinking, hard-drugging South; you just know a lot of people are going to die in this hard-to-put-down book but not exactly who, when, why, or at whose hands. It's like George Pelecanos (ethos) meets James Lee Burke (atmosphere), or Daniel Woodrell (characters) meets Anita Shreve (star-crossed passion). Just don't look for it on Oprah. Highly recommended.--Robert E. Brown, Onondaga Cty. P.L., Syracuse, NY Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.\
Read an Excerpt
She came down out of the hills that were growing black with night, and in the dusty road her feet found small broken stones that made her wince. Alone for the first time in the world and full dark coming quickly. House lights winked through the trees as she walked and swung her purse from her hand. She could hear cars passing down the asphalt but she was still a long way from that.
More than once she stopped and looked back up into the ridges that stood behind her, thinking things over, but each time she shook her head and went on.
South seemed best. She had vague ideas about a coast. She knew it would be warmer in the winter and that one thing drove her in that direction more than anything else. She imagined groves of citrus trees and sunny days picking the fruit and a tiny house where she would have her own groceries and watch television whenever she wanted to. She imagined one solid place where she could stay and maybe she could somehow send for the others then. Or ride a bicycle up and down the flat land with the water always shining out there beyond the shore and birds soaring like in the pictures she had seen of places like that. She kept her head down as she walked and she listened to the night things that called in the ditches and out past the stands of cane and in the clumps of trees that rose from the river bottom.
Once she stopped to rest on a narrow bridge and sat down on a timber studded with nailheads. A creek ran over snapped pilings and faintly gleaming rocks below her. She was thirsty but she feared picking her way down the muddy bank and the snakes she could not see. She sat hugging her knees and watching the specks of stars in the sky above her. All of it so still and unmoving, the stars so bright. She turned her head to the singing woods again. To go back would not take long. She got up and went on down the road.
Cows watched her progress from a quiet pasture like cows made of stone. She was afraid of them but she walked on by them. She didn't have a watch but she knew she'd been walking for about an hour.
When she rounded the last curve there was another bridge and she stopped again to rest before reaching a place where somebody might pick her up. She sat down and crossed her legs inside the skirt and opened the clasp of her purse. She rummaged through the few things that were in there and found the two dollar bills and pulled them out, smoothed the wrinkles, looked at them. She folded them and folded them again and undid the top button of her blouse and slid them into the left cup of the raveling bra, tucked them snugly in there and buttoned her blouse. Then she pushed herself up from the tarred wood with its hardened drippings of black goo and walked across it and out into the dusty gravel again. The moon was coming out.
She was afraid of the dogs that barked from the yards and sometimes came to the ends of the driveways and bared their teeth, but none came after her. She walked past a building set well back from the road and saw a dark cross set into the wood high up near the gable. She stopped. There was a light somewhere inside, a yellow beam that shone through stained glass windows. She wondered if there might be a water tap in the yard or on the side of the house. She turned down a neat drive covered with pea gravel, brushing the strands of her hair back from her face with her fingers. There was a light on a pole at the back and she could see a low wire fence and outcroppings of polished stones inside it. A whirling dance of insects hung around the pole. The light hummed with a low, steady drone and it cast a gauzy veil over everything. Crickets sounded from the dark woods back there.
She went cautiously even though there were no cars in the parking lot. Her steps were loud to her in the gravel. The west wall lay in shadow and there was a brick border for flowers near the entrance. She walked closer and saw a coil of garden hose in the damp grass and saw where it ended, a faucet protruding from a corner of the foundation. She went over to it and turned it on.
The water was cool and sweet. She was standing there drinking from the end of the hose when she heard it growling and turned her head to see a speckled knot of hair and bones with its head hung low between its shoulder blades standing thirty feet away. It moved closer and an odd clanking moved with it. She knew better than to run, so she let the hose drop from her hand and faced it. The dog seemed propped on its legs and a bit of drool swung from its jaw. The canines were bared in a bloody muzzle and its eyes were sick. Another ragged growl escaped it and it seemed hard-pressed to draw each breath. The foot that was caught in the rusty trap was nearly severed and the dog tried to hold it aloft as it came toward her, half whining, maybe for help. She backed toward the front porch and stepped onto it. There was a decorative iron column on each corner, leaves and vines hammered and painted, cool beneath her hands. The dog came closer. She turned to the double doors, the dark wood and the heavy brass knob. The door on the left opened when she twisted the knob and she stepped quickly inside, slammed it and stood with her back against it. The dog whined once and then there was nothing but the slight rattle of metal against gravel as the chain and trap were dragged away. She listened for a while but she couldn't hear anything else. She stepped away from the door and put the strap of her purse up over her shoulder. She went forward reluctantly, uneasy in a stranger's home.
A room like none she'd ever been in. A carpeted hallway that only whispered beneath her tennis shoes and long polished benches of wood shining faintly in the half gloom. She walked slowly, touching the dark brown pine. The ceiling pointed upward with long beams and chubby babies dressed in flowing swatches of cloth danced on air amid fields of flowers in a long painting across the back of the room or gathered at the feet of Jesus in a robe with a beard and long hair, seated on a stone. The tips of her fingers touched small brass plaques at the ends of the rows. The walls were lined with windows like the ones in front, beaded chips of glass in blue and red and gold, and at the front there sat a table holding bowls of polished metal. A white lace tablecloth. There were other paintings of Jesus and people, children, were always gathered about him. In all the paintings he wore a look of sorrow. There was no sound in that vast room at all. She wondered if the dog had gone away. She hoped it had. She thought it might be best to stay in here for a while, give it time to go somewhere else.
The long benches were covered with soft material that felt good under her hand. A small stage was beyond the table and on it stood a dark wooden platform. She opened a little side gate with a click and then went up the two steps to stand in front of the rows and rows of benches facing her. A Bible lay open before her, bound in leather, the pages so thin. She riffled through them, let them slide from her fingers. Somebody had to stand up here and talk to all these people.
"It's a church for rich folks," she said. The sound of her voice reverberated in the room, echoed quietly off the walls. She stepped away from the book and went back down the steps, out through the gate, around the rail. There was a door set into the rear wall and she opened it and found herself in a kitchen. Only a dim light burned over a stove. Rows of long tables and metal folding chairs shoulder to shoulder.
There was a wall switch beside the door and she flipped it up. The lights in the ceiling flickered for a moment and then came on strong, a bright glare that showed dishes racked beside a sink and cans of coffee left on a counter and cabinets that lined the back side of the room. A white refrigerator.
She set her purse on the counter and opened the door to see milk in cartons, covered dishes with casseroles and fried chicken, sliced ham. The lights hummed in the ceiling.
She found a plate and a fork in one of the cabinets and a loaf of bread in a corner of the counter and heaped the plate with food and poured a glass of milk. She sat down at one of the long tables and began to eat. The chicken was dry but she didn't care. Crumbs fell to the table on each side of the plate. She wished she'd known of this place on those nights back in the woods when there was nothing to rock against her empty belly except for her knees, those times they'd waited for the old man to come in with something to eat and waited all night many nights and he never did.
After a while she got up and poured herself another glass of milk and rummaged through the cabinets again. There were some fresh doughnuts in a cardboard box. She got three of them and sat back down and ate them one by one and licked the icing from her fingers when she was done.
In her purse she found the mangled pack of cigarettes that her brother Gary had given her and she got one out, holding it between her fingers while she searched for the matches, that she found finally beneath tubes of cheap lipstick and plastic combs and hairbands, things she'd saved for years. She lit the cigarette and waved the match out and dropped it into her purse and then pulled out another chair to prop her feet on and stretched out, blowing smoke lazily at the ceiling, thumping the ashes into the chicken bones on her plate. There was only one more thing she could have asked for.
The instant coffee was in a drawer and she heated water in a pan, found sugar and stirred it into the swirling coffee and sat down again with the steaming cup in front of her. She had one more cigarette, but by then she felt she'd already been there too long. She put the dishes she'd taken food from back into the refrigerator and scraped the scraps into a trash can with a lid. She ran hot water into the sink and added detergent that was there and washed the plate and the glass and the cup and the spoon and the fork, put them back where they had been. Wiped the crumbs from the table with a paper towel. She put the chairs back in their places and put the pan away. When she was done, she got her purse and checked one last time to see that everything was as it had been. Then she turned the light off and went out.
In the middle of the big room she stopped again. Jesus seemed to gaze down upon her with his painted eyes. She looked at the table and the empty bowls. Even though she felt just from the expression on his face that he wouldn't mind her taking the food and eating it, she turned and went back up the quiet aisle to the table and reached inside her blouse for the folded money tucked into the bra. She unfolded the money, put one bill in a bowl, the other one back into the bra.
Nothing changed inside the room. It crossed her mind to find a corner to sleep in but she was still too close to the place she had left. When she cracked the heavy door open and peeked out, the dog had gone. She pulled the door shut behind her and went on up the drive toward the blacktop. And then she remembered that the water was still running at the side of the building and went back down there and turned it off.
Use of this excerpt from FAY may be made only for purposes of promoting the book, with no changes, editing, or additions whatsoever, and must be accompanied by the following copyright notice:
Copyright c 2000 by Larry Brown. All rights reserved.