Billy Ray's Farm
Larry Brown
(Algonquin Books)

One of the reasons I love Larry Brown is that he has managed to gain his strong reputation without going to college. Sure, he might step into classrooms these days and teach a few courses or do a residency, but he learned his writing craft by doing it himself. He wrote on weekends and evenings when he wasn't on his fireman shifts or bagging groceries. He questioned the worth of his five unpublished novels. He threw stories away and get repeatedly rejected.

Still, he felt like he reached a turning point when he wrote a jarringly honest story called "Facing the Music," about a man learning to deal with his wife's breast cancer. This story appeared in Mississippi Review, and, along with nine other stories, launched his uncompromising career when Algonquin Books (contemporary champions of southern literature) published his collection in 1988, also titled Facing the Music.

Brown followed that up with a gritty first novel entitled Dirty Work, one of my all-time favorite reads, which documents the conversation of two war veterans trying to cope with disturbing injuries and memories of pre-war life. More books followed, including his epic fourth novel, Fay, which was recently published in paperback. Like many of the great Mississippi writers, it seems as if he was born with literary talent in his blood. Or perhaps, as he speculates occasionally throughout his collection of essays, Billy Ray's Farm, it may simply be the land, the people, the weather, and the tradition that overshadows him that spur him to write.

Regardless of the reasons, it's always a treat when someone who has authored great fiction decides to put together a book of meditations directly from his own life. Brown has done it once before, with 1994's On Fire, which chronicled his time as a fireman with touching grace. In this book, the pieces are entwined by a sense of place--whether it's futilely trying to birth calves on his son's hard-luck farm, sneaking up on a goat-killing coyote, fishing with a favorite bluesman, or doing the literary rounds at a conference in Chattanooga. You can register the humidity and see the dry dirt roads in his writing. You can feel the defeat every time nature or the family's animals deliver them a bad hand.

Brown is good at this kind of reporting, but I would still say that his fiction is much more startling and entertaining. Brown, for the most part, is a fairly ordinary man, unlike one of his heroes, Harry Crews, whom he writes of with an almost intimidated admiration in the essay Harry Crews: Mentor and Friend: "He was leaning up against a wall when I walked off the plane in Gainesville, wearing a pair of jeans and running shoes and an Oakland Raiders sweatshirt with the sleeves hacked off. The sides of his head were shaved...He was taller than I imagined, a really big man."

Brown's admiration is deserved. If you want to encounter a southern novelist whose non-fiction can supersede his fiction, check out Crews' A Childhood: The Biography of a Place. I'll have to admit, I was thankful to find that this book is not entirely about farm life (although these parts are still entertaining--and informative--for city slickers) and despite the non-fiction limits, his descriptions of people ("Old geezers wobbled goggle-eyed, stunned by the smell of blood or maybe just approaching sunstroke."), and things ("like a spillway-draining turned into a free-for-all fish grab") are still wildly told and brutally true, just enough to keep us happy until the next novel. Brown, the self-taught rebel, keeps on learning, and so do we.

Support The Portland Mercury