Larry Brown: A Writer’s Life

Feb 11, 2013

  “Larry Brown: A Writer’s Life”

Author: Jean W. Cash

Publisher: University of Mississippi Press

Pages: 400

Price: $35.00 (Cloth)

Late in the evening of November 23, 2004, the Mississippi writer Larry Brown said to his wife, Mary Annie, what were just about his last words. “I’m ready to go to bed….Life’s good now, ain’t it?”

Brown died of a heart attack the next morning.

He was only 53, but because of his nearly obsessive drive, his unstoppable need to be successful as a writer, Brown had published nine volumes of work, beginning rather late with the story collection “Facing the Music” in 1988. Born July 9, 1951, Brown was already 37 years old.

Jean Cash, who is also the author of a biography of Flannery O’Connor, has subtitled her biography of Brown “A Writer’s Life.” Brown would have loved that.

In fact, back in the late 80’s, those of us who knew anything about Larry Brown, had read any of his work, knew especially the rudiments of his biography. He was the country boy who had never been to college at all, had grown up outside Oxford in hardship and poverty, complete with alcoholic father and broken home, the whole nine yards. After a hitch in the Marine Corps, he had become a fireman in Oxford, rising to the rank of captain. We knew through the grapevine that he wrote and wrote, more than five novels and a hundred stories that were never published, took a writing class with the novelist Ellen Douglas, thrust stories upon Barry Hannah for comment whenever he could, and hung out in the Oxford of Hannah, Willie Morris, John Grisham and the rest of the gang which included, sometimes, the student Donna Tartt, who would write “The Secret History,” and the owner of Square Books and sometime mayor of Oxford, Richard Howorth.

Everybody liked Brown, but not everyone immediately saw his genius. Hannah wrote: Brown’s stories “were so bad, I’d duck out the back of the bar when I saw him coming down the walk with the inevitable manila envelope. I couldn’t stand hurting his feelings. I loved his sincerity. I didn’t give him a cold prayer in hell as to a future in literature.”

Larry Brown was the fireman who wrote.

He worked ferociously hard to change that. He wanted to be a writer, full time, and be known, indeed famous, for it.

Brown’s motivations for wanting to write were several and varied. For one thing he had been a reader of popular fiction and really enjoyed it. He thought, as many do, he could do that too, and become a John D. McDonald or a Stephen King.

His life as a fireman was satisfying in its way, but he wanted to make a mark at something more permanent. And writing looked easier than construction as a way to make extra money.

Beginning about 1980, Brown wrote relentlessly and had a few stories published. This apprenticeship, the old-fashioned kind, not the MFA workshop, lasted about seven years and Brown did prevail.

“Facing the Music” was followed by the novel “Dirty Work” the next year and a steady stream of books up until his death.

Jean Cash has not written a critical biography here but does include commentary on all of Brown’s fiction and nonfiction. She is clear about his strengths.

Unrelenting effort might be number one, but a wealth of material was also crucial. Brown revered the work of the older writer Harry Crews and identified with Crews’s experiences. Brown knew the life of the white Mississippi underclass, the rednecks and blue collar folk and, to a lesser extent, poor blacks, and was able to use this knowledge and empathy to generate characters who were real to the reader. Brown did not romanticize or sentimentalize his rednecks, but he did not vilify or dehumanize them either. They were just people caught in often terrible predicaments, often of their own making, of course, but thoroughly human and at least partially redeemable.

In 1990 Brown resigned from the fire department to write full-time.

This is absolutely what he wanted but it brought its own stresses. Now he had to go on tour, do readings and signings, and Brown was not a happy road warrior. Now he needed to attend literary conferences like Breadloaf and to teach occasionally as writer-in-residence among academics. These experiences were well outside his comfort zone.

Ironically, one might say, Brown, who set out to be a genre writer, ended up a literary writer and although his advances on individual books reached over $100,000, money was always a problem.

On the plus side, Brown developed, over time, good friendships with a number of like-minded writers—Rick Bass and Clyde Edgerton just to name a couple, but always feared being cut off from his people. He sought fame but became highly irritated when his privacy was intruded upon by a fan seeking an autograph or a stranger with a camera.

Writing full time can be a lonely and somewhat unnatural life and Brown, obsessive personality that he was, ended up writing from 7 pm until dawn and then sleeping all day.

And although Cash does not linger on the subject, alcohol, marijuana and the attentions of female literary groupies were always a serious problem for Brown, who was both the macho fire captain and the aesthete—catnip in book tour world.

It touched me to read that, by the time of his demise, Brown had finally achieved balance as a husband, father, friend and writer. Life was good.

This review was originally broadcast on Alabama Public Radio. Don Noble is host of the Alabama Public Television literary interview show “Bookmark” and the editor of “A State of Laughter: Comic Fiction from Alabama.”