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Falling in Love with Fay: Larry Brown’s Most Accomplished Novel

“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…”

Some have called Fay “uninventive,” a “spindly tale,” and too drawn out. Others have said it’s “almost a masterpiece.” Others too that the jury is still out on whether or not Larry Brown’s work will go down as literature. The begrudging respect, I think, must come partly from the mythos that accompanies the unlikely high-school-educated-firefighter-turned-preeminent-author, Larry Brown. You probably know the story: 17 years a firefighter, at least four “failed novels” that he ultimately trashed, when an agent discovered his first story “Facing the Music” in the Mississippi Review (after numerous close calls but all rejections), she asked him if he had anything else and he said he had over 100 stories.

I admit there are plenty of ways to define most accomplished: theme, plot intricacy, characterization, context (both in an author’s career as well as the context of the novel), etc. I’m going to stick with my instincts on Fay much the way Brown was an instinctual writer, who went to bars to get his stories–and more or less never left–just hopped around.

There’s something raw and elemental about Larry Brown’s writing at his best. When his prose finds a rhythm that both elevates and heightens the dramatic action and the local color of the Mississippi he knew so well, then something both “high and low” happens at the same time. Brown’s strength comes from his apparent natural storyteller’s gift. If people find the patterns of the “white trash” that he often depicts as predictable, then so we could say that human behavior is too. The real “weak spot” in Larry Brown’s writing is that you could say his dramatic action can veer toward the melodramatic. He said he feared as much when writing the much-lauded Father and Son.

The debate of “high and low” or “raw and cooked” or “literature and entertainment” in American literature is probably an eternal debate. James M. Cain could tell a story full of action and drama but will his work ever be considered “literary”? Probably not. Shirley Jackson was pegged as something of a sensationalist in her writing (as popular as she was in her own time), and was never regarded as highly as a literary writer as she deserves.

But we stray from Fay.

It does seem grounded in reality that an innocent, 17-year-old beauty might just assert herself from the wreckage around her and seek something else–whatever that something might be. She has never seen a seat belt, a pay phone, a movie, an oyster, or that “crazy rabbit hopping around with a black duck with a ring around his neck” on television. She doesn’t know there was a Civil War, that minors can’t buy beer or what “strip club” and “appraised” mean.

One of the things I like about Fay was how convincingly he gets into the head of his 17-year-old protagonist. As Virginia Vitzthum writes,

“Brown doesn’t condescend to his fifth-grade-educated heroine: She survives her descent to lowlife hell with the shrewd resourcefulness of a Huck Finn. Nor does he cheat by having her pontificate beyond her intellectual horizons: When Fay meets a man who may protect her, Brown tells us, ‘If she had known the word grace she would have said that word to describe his walk.'”

Fay is a picaresque set in the mid-80s about a young beautiful girl who wants a little more. Coming down out of the hills from where she comes, this is asking a lot. If Brown didn’t engage in the flamboyant experiments of Faulkner, he was daring in other ways, especially in his inclusion of black (Dirty Work) and female voices. I highly recommend this early 21st century masterpiece of southern literature.

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