One word best describes Larry Brown’s writing: brutal. The north Mississippi writer’s latest work of fiction, “Fay” (Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, $24.95), is filled with characters, events and pain which amplify the everyday brutality of many lower-class whites in Mississippi. Of course in writing about these increasingly marginalized women and men, Brown also says much about all of us: who we are, who we love, who we hate and what it means to live and to die as Southerners. Along the way, Larry Brown also tells one fine story.
“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…
“More than once she stopped and looked back up into the ridges that stood behind her, thinking things over, but each time she shook her head and went on.”
And so 17-year-old Fay Jones begins her journey. Fay will be remembered by many of Larry Brown’s readers. She played a small part in Brown’s 1991 novel, “Joe,” also a work of brutal beauty and heartbreak. In “Joe,” Brown introduced the Jones’s — a dirt-poor family that has wandered into the hills outside of Oxford. The family settles down into an abandoned shack, and we watch as one horrible story is let loose. The father is despicable. Repulsive. Evil. It is this man, and this life, that pushes 17-year-old Fay down, out of the hills, with a story of her own. It’s 1985, and she’s heading for the Coast. It’s a very different Coast. No casinos. No great golf. It’s a different Mississippi, too. Isn’t it?
After a quick introduction to beer, bourbon, marijuana and redneck sex in a broken-down, over-populated trailer, Fay Jones, growing wiser mighty fast, is saved from a hot Mississippi highway by a state trooper: “She sat down and was enveloped in a waft of cold air. He shut the door on her and she sat with her purse in her lap. The glass was tinted and now the outside world was not bright like it had been.”
And Fay Jones’ world is never quite the same again either. Nor is the trooper’s. His wife’s. His girlfriend’s. And on it goes until we are left on the Coast, in lovely Pass Christian with five dead bodies, and Fay, disappearing into a New Orleans strip club.
“Fay” is one of those novels that you should read on a deck or a dock, maybe in the sand at the beach, with a six-pack of cold, cheap beer next to you. Read a few pages, take a sip. Think about what it is you’ve read. And after the 489 pages, perhaps you’ll be closer along to an answer to those greatest of questions given to us in William Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom: “Tell about the South. What’s it like there. What do they do there. Why do they live there. Why do they live at all.”
We shake our heads in disbelief at Fay Jones and the lives she brightens, enlightens and ends. “That can’t be. Who are these people? What are they thinking? This isn’t real.” But it is. And that’s the beauty — and gift — of Larry Brown: He tells the truth from the darkest of our hearts.
Contact MBJ editor Jim Laird at email@example.com or (601) 364-1018.