It’s a tough choice, but if you had to choose five, and you had to do it off the top of your head. Which ones? Why?
“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…”
These were the first words I ever heard by Larry Brown. I fell in love with Fay right away. I listened to it on my daily drive to Cleveland, Tennessee on my way in to Lee University. I was captivated. There’s something about listening to a book by a good reader (read by Tom Stechschulte). Fay is a complex novel and compelling read.
2. Big Bad Love
“I didn’t know why something that started off feeling so good had to wind up feeling so bad. Love was a big word and it covered a lot of territory. You could spend your whole life chasing after it and wind up with nothing, be an old bitter guy with long nose hair and ear hair and no teeth, hanging out in bars, looking for somebody your age, but the chances of success went down then. After a while you got too many strikes against you.”
Larry Brown’s highly praised debut novel, Dirty Work, established him as one of the fiercest and most powerful new voices in Southern literature, a writer who understood the sorrows and joys of everyday life. That same compassionate regard for ordinary people shines on every page of Big Bad Love, whose heroes in these stories have a fatal weakness for beer, fast women, and pick-up trucks, and who find a kind of salvation in the reckless pursuit of love. Facing the Music was Brown’s first short story collection and earned him his reputation. Big Bad Love cemented it and expanded upon it.
3. Father and Son
Not to easy to keep your reader invested with an unsympathetic protagonist, but that is just what Larry Brown does in this this classic story of good and evil. It takes place in the rural American South of 1968. After being released from prison, Glen Davis returns to his hometown only to commit double homicide, rape and generally pillage, within forty-eight hours of his return. A glimpse at how evil can fester in a man’s heart and eat up his soul.
“A portrait of true evil is at the heart of this sad tale of betrayal and revenge, with its almost casual allusions to fratricide, parricide, and incest. Evil has a name: Glen Davis, the bad seed of Virgil and Emma, who arrives back in town after serving three years for vehicular homicide in Parchman penitentiary, where he seems to have nursed his grudges and hates, all of which he settles in the few days covered in this novel…A riveting tale of an unforgiving and cruel world,” writes the Kirkus Review.
4. The Rabbit Factory
Publishers Weekly was not kind to The Rabbit Factory, reporting, “Here, the characters are all self-absorbed and incessantly whiny, and their obsessive rambling thoughts are recounted in numbing detail. Readers will understand well before the end that these sad lives will never go anywhere but down.”
George Singleton also disclosed to me that this was one of his least favorites. While it’s true that we may never come to love the characters here the same way we do in, say, Fay, a more accomplished novel, The Rabbit Factory attempts something different. A wild plot with a large cast of characters, seemingly inspired by a Robert Altman film like Nashville, or to push that idea further, perhaps even Pulp Fiction, it also veers toward the comic much more than his previous works.
Many have said these characters are on a downward spiral that is easy to predict. Fair enough, but the larger theme Brown explores in his novels, not the least of which he does in The Rabbit Factory, is to show how each person feels caged and how powerful their desires to free themselves become. It’s no wonder that animals feature more prominently in this novel than in any other of Brown’s. There is no central character, but rather a life force animating the drama from within and without.
5. On Fire
Is On Fire necessarily so much stronger than Billy Ray’s Farm, Brown’s second nonfiction collection? It illustrates the man behind the myth that most readers of Larry Brown know so well (17 years a fireman with no college education). Interspersed throughout are anecdotes from Brown’s life: his guilt over killing a mouse; his early joy in hunting and fishing; his love for his family and his squirrel dog. The funny story of his temporary separation from his wife has all the hard-luck pathos of his best short stories.
Those are Hanging Chad’s Top Five and Why. What are yours? Here’s where you can see all his books for further perusal and a way to make your own Top Five choice.
- Facing the Music (1988) short stories
- Dirty Work (1989) novel
- Big Bad Love (1990) short stories
- Joe (1991) novel
- On Fire (1994) non-fiction
- Father and Son (1996) novel (Winner of Southern Book Award)
- Fay (2000) novel
- Billy Ray’s Farm: Essays from a Place Called Tula (2001) non-fiction
- The Rabbit Factory (2003) novel
- A Miracle of Catfish 2007 (2007) published posthumously