Country Boy Hits Big Time
Dove season would start soon, Larry Brown said, explaining why he did not want to go on a national book tour or appear on the “Today” show. Then comes rabbit season and after that, deer season.
This would be a bad time for him to take off work, what with the other boys at his fire station wanting to use their vacation time to go hunting. Plus, he belongs to the hunting club out at Thacker Mountain. And he wants to take his oldest son hunting.
Besides, Brown doesn’t like flying on airplanes. And New York is no kind of place to visit, even if it means the “Today” show. He knows this, ‘cause, for the first time in his life, last May, he went to New York to meet with his publisher and to hear his work read in a program of American authors.
Brown, a captain in this north Mississippi town’s fire department, is now a local literary hero. An unlettered country boy who has become a self-taught man of letters, he is unsure of how much success he wants or can handle.
“They want me to get out and push myself a lot harder,” he said, referring to his publisher. “It’s what I ought to do. I have my wife nagging on me to do it. Everybody here in Oxford thinks I ought to do it. But it’s tough for me to meet all these people I don’t know. Go out to dinner. Carry on conversations. Just being afraid, you know, of embarrassing myself or looking bad or something. Maybe it’s my background or something.”
Therein lies the power of Brown’s tale and of the tales he writes.
His newly published first novel, “Dirty Work,” tells the story of two Vietnam vets from Mississippi, one white, the other black, both war-injured, and, two decades later, roommates in a veterans’ hospital in the South.
Brown’s agent has just negotiated the deal for rights to “Dirty Work” in Great Britain. Harper & Row last month reissued in paperback Brown’s first book, a collection of stories entitled “Facing the Music,” which was published in hard cover last year by Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill.
Algonquin, Brown said, “asked if I would take some money to write another novel. I said I’d hate to take money for something that’s not written.”
Algonquin since has been pleading with him to allow the firm to push for a “Today” show appearance. But he has dismissed that idea, as well as the notion of a national tour, even though he dreams of writing a “Dirty Work” screenplay and of becoming so successful that he could quit the fire department, write full time and lead a literary life far different from his origins.
William Larry Brown grew up white and poor in a place where race and class have mattered greatly.
His father, who died in 1968, was a sharecropper, an alcoholic and a wounded veteran of the Battle of the Bulge. His mother is the postmaster of nearby Tula and proprietor of the country store that Brown and his wife, Mary Annie, ran, until recently, as a sideline. Mary Annie is a secretary for the Oxford parole office of the Mississippi Department of Corrections. When they married, she was 19 and he was 22.
They live now on land where they have always lived as a couple, 10 miles southeast of the college town of Oxford and not far from a wide spot in the road called Yocona (YOCK nee). Their brick, ranch-style house, which Larry built three years ago, sits next door to Mary Annie’s girlhood home on 61 acres surrounded by soybeans, cows, cotton, catfish ponds and pecan trees.
Brown, 38, never went to college and would have been an oddity in his family if he had. In fact, he flunked high school senior English and had to repeat it so he could graduate in 1969.
“All I wanted to do was get me a job and buy me a car,” he said. In 1970, he joined the U.S. Marines rather than get drafted into the Army during the Vietnam War.
He didn’t go to Southeast Asia. And except for living in Memphis for 10 years as a boy, he has spent most of his life in the countryside outside of Oxford, an area that served as the basis for a rich literary landscape created by native son and Nobel Laureate William Faulkner.
Brown is not a big man. His hands, with short stubby fingers, look more like those of a working man than a writer. Curly, chestnut hair recedes from his forehead tanned by the sun.
In “Dirty Work,” an antiwar novel reminiscent of “Johnny Got His Gun,” one of the two main characters is narrating his childhood story, and to a limited extent that of Brown, this way:
” . . . We got our water from a well and we had to carry it to the house in a bucket. I never lived in a house with running water until I was 14. . . . Instead of turning on an air conditioner we sweated.
“When it was real hot . . . Mama would let me put my bed out on the back porch and sleep out there. You could catch that night wind and hear everything out in the woods calling, crickets and frogs and birds. You could even hear a fox bark . . . or coondogs running down in the bottom. You could see our cotton patch . . . and think about how nice it was to just stay right there and not have to be out in the sun, chopping cotton, sweating, working. . . .”
Sitting next to Brown at a book-signing last month was Barry Hannah, author of eight books and a writer-in-residence at the University of Mississippi in Oxford. “Larry,” he said, “doesn’t have the problem that overeducated writers have. He gets down to the gutsy level right away. I don’t know of anybody as good who started right from scratch.”
Seven years ago, Brown first met Hannah in an Oxford pizza parlor. That same year, Brown published his first fictional story, in Easyriders, a motorcycle magazine. Brown also met another writer-in-residence who became a supporter, Willie Morris, the novelist and former editor of Harper’s magazine.
At Hannah’s suggestion, Brown audited a fiction class taught by novelist Ellen Douglas at the university. There, and at Square Books, the bookstore that one day would host his signings, Brown discovered literature.
“Flaubert. Is that how you say it?” he says, giving a Southern-accented version of the French author’s name. Raymond Carver, Flannery O’Conner, Cormac McCarthy and Faulkner are among the writers who influence Brown most.
With a gold Cross pen, Brown signed a book for Hannah: “For kindness that goes way back.” Brown also signed a pamphlet entitled “A Late Start,” the transcript of a talk he gave in April in Chattanooga at the Fifth Biennial Conference on Southern Literature with the likes of writers William Styron and Gail Godwin.
Brought People to Tears
With stories, some of which concerned his father’s alcoholism and family moments he’d rather not recount publicly again, Brown brought people in that audience to tears. This is some of what he said:
“When I was 29, I stopped and looked at my life and wondered if I was ever going to do anything. . . . I had been a firefighter for six years and on my days off I had set out pine trees, done carpentry work, cleaned carpets, cut pulpwood, deadened timber, you name it. I’d built those chain-link fences for Sears & Roebuck, and painted houses, and I’d hauled hay. . . . I had done all these things to support my wife and my two little boys.”
His way of talking, his manners bespeak rural Mississippi. He uses lots of “you knows” and “I reckons.”
But when Brown writes, his editor Shannon Ravenel says, “he doesn’t blink, doesn’t flinch.”
He told the Chattanooga audience: “I wondered if writing might be like learning how to build houses, or lay brick, or even fight fires. . . . I knew that some writers made a lot of money. . . . The main question was, ‘Could a person teach himself how to write by writing?’ I had absolutely no idea of the odds against me.”
An indiscriminate reader who consumed books at the fire station in a town that doesn’t have many fires, he had no notion of good literature when he was in his 20s. He read all of the sex of Harold Robbins, the Westerns of Louis L’Amour and the horror of Stephen King.
He borrowed his wife’s portable Smith-Corona electric typewriter, got a box of typing paper and wrote 327 single-spaced pages of a novel about a man-eating bear in Yellowstone National Park, a place he knew nothing about and where, in his novel, a great deal of sex occurred.
The novel would be the first of many over-the-transom submissions he sent everywhere, from Swank to the Saturday Evening Post to Knopf. They all said no. But once, from Outdoor Life, he received a helpful rejection. At the same time, he began to read every self-help book he could find on writing. And he wrote.
Nine years, six novels and 110 short stories later, he has found success.
Brown now writes not of Yellowstone, but of the Southern landscape and Southern people.
In his stories, men kill mules and beat women. Couples cope with the trauma of mastectomy. A man cuts his neighbors’ hair in his living room by firelight and by the light of “The Beverly Hillbillies.” And everybody, at one time or another it seems, is drinking, crying, making love, thinking about committing suicide or is closely involved with people who are engaged, or fleeing from people, in these or related activities.
In 1987, the Mississippi Review published his story “Facing the Music.” That indirectly led Ravenel, series editor of the “Best American Short Stories,” to become his editor. Soon after, he got a New York agent. This year his work appears in three anthologies, including the “Best American Short Stories 1989,” which is publishing, and “Kubuku Rides (This Is It).” Brown says The New Yorker rejected the work after calling it a boring story with a good ending.
As a writer, Ravenel said, Brown “is really smart about people. He has excellent insights and . . . characterizations. Depression, drinking, martial discord are his subjects. He doesn’t back away. There are not many writers that can do it so well.”
And, she said, “What makes him so readable is that he is also so very funny.”
When Brown gave “Dirty Work” to his mother and signed it “For Mama who got me to read,” somewhat apologetically he told her: “There’s some pretty rough stuff in here.”
“I know what trouble is like,” Brown says. “Maybe I harp on it too much. But the people I write about are like the people I have known.”