Larry Brown
Algonquin Press of Chapel Hill, $24.05

"The only time she’d ever felt worse than this was when her daddy had traded her little brother for that new car." Welcome to the world of Larry Brown, a Southern Redneck-Gothic place of bad luck, child abuse, alcoholism, rape, and the innumerable miseries of the lifestyles of the poor and obscure, tragedies acted out in trailer parks and rundown roadhouses, interludes at convenience stores and strip joints. Brown’s characters are utter pawns—pawns of the author, pawns of life, failures or near-failures all. As a friend of mine said, he’d enjoyed one of Brown’s novels, but probably wasn’t going to read another, as he thought he’d had a full dose the first time around.

Yet, as with all serious art, there’s a payoff: persevere, and Brown’s storytelling casts a spell. Reading Fay, which at first I found repugnant, then couldn’t put down, I was reminded not so much of Faulkner (with whom Brown, from Oxford, Mississippi, is inevitably compared) but of the French naturalists—Guy de Maupassant in particular, and not the flippant "trick ending" Maupassant of "The Necklace" but the marble-cold Maupassant of "Une vie" and "Boule de suif." Brown’s unadorned, placid style has the same detachment, it carries the same sense of inexorability, it reflects the same resignation to fate. The spirit of Thomas Hardy, too, hovers in the wings: Fay Jones, Fay’s eponymous main character, is something of a modern-day, Mississippian Tess Durbeyfield with street (or highway) smarts.

Fay is a seventeen-year-old runaway. As in the quote that opens this review, we get the odd hint of the domestic squalor she has just escaped and the abusive daddy (always daddy, never father: Brown’s ear for Southern speech is pitch-perfect) who made life hell for his family. These hints of her past are few and well-placed, though, and wryness peeps through the tragedy. Fay is semi-literate and uninformed about the world, except to the extent of knowing the difference between good folks and bad folks and rich folks and poor folks, but she is endowed with the native gifts of a quick wit and a good body. She needs the former to protect the latter. Men are drawn to her body, as her own daddy was, this paternal concupiscence being the proximate cause of her flight south, a destination that turns into an El Dorado in her mind:

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 could have her own groceries and watch television whenever she wanted to.

The men Fay encounters on her journey are mostly hard-luck cases only a little higher on the rungs of life than she is, and meeting her is a turning-point for them. On her way south, Fay meets Sam, a state trooper whose marriage has frozen into formality since his daughter’s death in a car crash. Out of loneliness, he and his wife take Fay into their lakeside house. The ménage á trois soon spirals out of control, however, and Fay hits the road again, with the lovesick Sam in pursuit. Brown deploys his considerable forces as a storyteller to create a deft narrative counterpoint that cuts back and forth between Sam’s obsessive longing for Fay and the tense circumstances of Fay’s new life with denizens of the seamier side of the longed-for coast—notably Aaron, a strip-club bouncer and drug dealer who is familiar with the infinite varieties of lust and squalor but less so with that bizarre sensation, love:

"I guess you’ve been in love before," she said. He wagged his chin and leaned against the wall. "Not me." He raised his eyes and looked at her. "I guess I never did meet the right one."

But he has now—or has he? Love makes twitchy Aaron worse, not better. To impress Fay, he casually kills a local rival; when he finds out about Sam, he becomes more paranoid, more defensive, and more than ready for the showdown, which, when it does come, breaks the by now almost unbearable suspense.

But the femme fatale Fay becomes in spite of herself proves much more than a match for these men; more importantly, Fay has within her the tenacity of those tough, gritty, eternally ill-used poor folk—of Maupassant’s Normandy and Hardy’s Wessex, as well as Brown’s Mississippi—who have somehow survived the great venom of the centuries:

There wasn’t any use in thinking about it. What happened had happened and it was too late to go back and change any of it. This was what her life was now. She’d just have to deal with it.

Simple wisdom, but Fay needs no other. Nor do we in the real world—although the fictional world Brown builds in there, chapter by painstaking chapter, comes to feel more real than the world out there, on the reader’s end. Few writers can equal his ability to spot the revealing tic, the telling detail. After my initial revulsion at the novel’s almost suffocating verisimilitude (the speech, the landscapes, the sorry vices), I found myself living through every twist and turn of Fay’s odyssey with that apprehensive feeling that the world is really like this, a disorderly congeries of unlikely events. Innocence, love, and lives are lost, and only life’s little ironies prevail. Brown has a connoisseur’s nose for such ironies.

Larry Brown is a two-time winner of the Southern Book Critics’ Circle Award for his novels Joe (1992) and Father and Son (1997). In spite of these literary bona fides, and a creative-writing apprenticeship served under Barry Hannah at the University of Mississippi, it’s hard not to feel that it was his seventeen years as a firefighter in Oxford that taught Brown what he knows about life. And he does know about life. Compared to the cloying writing-workshop prose that clogs up the literary arteries of the nation, Larry Brown is like a shot of neat bourbon. Like bourbon, he’s not for the squeamish.