Before his death in 2004, Larry Brown had accumulated a cultlike following among fans of Grit Lit, a down-and-dirty kind of Southern noir that includes among its ranks writers such as Harry Crews, Barry Hannah and Dorothy Allison.
Part of Brown’s fascination among his admirers, aside from his exceptional gift for storytelling, was his backstory. Born in Oxford, Mississippi, he was a high school dropout who served in the Marines then made a living driving forklifts and painting houses before he began a career as a firefighter. Along the way, he became a writer. The authenticity he brought to his sad, sordid, sometimes darkly humorous stories of hardworking, hard-drinking, hard-smoking blue-collar men and their needy women bristles on the page. By all accounts, Brown worked, drank and smoked hard, too, which may be what contributed to his early death at age 53 from an apparent heart attack.
Despite his short life and a late start, Brown left behind a robust body of work, including five novels, two collections of essays and a slew of short stories, the latter of which have been collected and newly published under the title “Tiny Love: The Complete Stories.” In addition to the entirety of his two short story collections, “Facing the Music” and “Big Bad Love,” “Tiny Love” includes newly found material unearthed by author Jonathan Miles, a friend of Brown’s who worked with his literary estate.
In his foreword, Miles writes that one of Brown’s strengths was “he never flinched. His characters flowed onto the page without dilution or filtering, their defects left intact … What he asked us to afford them was the same thing he applied, rigorously, to their creation: unsparing empathy.”
The men in Brown’s stories work in factories, paint houses and repair toilets. In their spare time, they hunt deer, hang out in bars and drive around country roads in their trucks. When they can afford it, a six-pack of beer chills in a cooler in the back. These men typically have good intentions, but they are easily led astray by friends bearing weed or half-pints of whiskey and the promise of meeting women.
The women in Brown’s stories are mostly reprehensible. They spend their days watching TV in their nightgowns, smoking cigarettes and drinking, while their husbands toil all day. Children are ignored; there’s never any dinner cooking on the stove when their husbands come home. And the first chance they get, they run off with another man.
Not surprisingly, there is a good bit of violence in Brown’s stories, mostly sloppy bar fights and car wrecks, although in “The End of Romance,” a gruesome shooting at a convenience store plays out in bizarre fashion that is both horrific and comedic. And there are an extraordinary number of references to dead dogs, including the poem “Boy and Dog” about a child’s revenge against the driver who ran over the family pet.
In a couple of stories, the protagonist is a writer named Leon Barlow. He is tormented by the stream of rejections that pours into his mailbox from editors returning his stories unpublished. In “A Birthday Party,” Leon is distraught over turning 40 and drowning his sorrows in Crown and Coke at a bar. Hungry for solace but too eaten up with bitterness to make a human connection, he sits alone, simmering with quiet rage, passing judgment on his fellow barflies until, in a last desperate grasp for comfort, he gives into his despair in a soul-crushing way.
In “92 Days,” Leon cooks up a plan whereby he works for a stretch painting houses and banking enough money to cover his living expenses for a while, then quits work to write full time until his money runs out, at which point he starts the cycle all over again. But once again, the river of rejection letters taunts him, corroding his self-confidence. The anesthetizing qualities of alcohol slowly lure him away from his goals with devastating effects.
Although his stories share many of the same qualities, Brown was far from formulaic, and several of his stories are outliers in form and/or content. “The Crying” is a ghost story about a deer hunter who hears a voice in the woods. “Discipline” is a speculative story about a hack’s prison where writers are locked up for plagiarism and forced to read classic literature. “Julie: A Memory” is an experimental piece containing one long paragraph of disjointed sentences that jump around in time and relay multiple narratives surrounding a mother’s failed romance, an unwanted pregnancy, a rape and a revenge killing.
The title story, “Tiny Love,” is a heartbreaking piece about a man whose obsessive love for, first, one woman, and then another leads to his tragic undoing. Coursing throughout Brown’s work is the desperate desire for human connection and the misery resulting from the failure to achieve it.
There is a stark, stripped-down quality to Brown’s writing. His language is blunt and sometimes coarse. It is the pitch-perfect voice for telling the indelible stories of these working-class men and women who strive to do right but who often prove to be their own worst enemies. Taken as a whole, this collection of stories may leave the reader drowning in despair. Brown’s stories are perhaps best taken just a few at a time. Either way, his characters and their travails will stay with you for a very long time.
By Larry Brown
480 pages, $18.95
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