Saturday, December 7, 2019

"Knowing I had to know"

There are some bands to whom I'll always return, and some writers. For the past week or so I've been savoring Tiny Love, the complete collection of Larry Brown's short fiction, just out from Algonquin Books. (Brown died in 2004.) Though I know all of these stories by heart, save for the six previously uncollected, I continue to marvel at Brown's talky and intimate language, his sparse but evocative narrative details, and his lovely, fucked-up characters—men and women, mostly men, caught between their good intentions and their demons, between the knowledge that what they're doing is messed up and their inability to stop messing up. Brown wrote about drunks and derelicts with genuine respect for their suffering and their regrets, dramatized them with humanity and dimension, and that, I think, is his great legacy, and that generosity of spirit is among the reasons why I return to his work. He wrote about his characters' excesses and indulgences—in drink, sex, solipsism, general disregard for the requirements of adulthood—not as romantic fuck-you's or decadent stays-against-The Man but as ambivalent, lived-in responses to low-ceiling fates, to the daily dramas and tragedies brought about by alcoholism, though I don't think Brown used that word too often when conceiving of or talking about his characters. He did struggle with alcoholism himself, and was honest about it to friends and interviewers, if not always with himself. He also had a remarkable ability to evoke the landscape of northern Mississippi as both external to and deep within the characters; they loved and breathed it as weather. And though Man versus Nature might be the well-worn way to describe his characters' dilemmas, the line between those men and women and the lovely though brutal, Naturalistic world they lived in was so narrow as to be invisible.

This time through I'm reeling at the novella "92 Days," the third section in his book Big Bad Love, published in 1990. Leon Barlow is a fiction writer who obsesses over his work (his writing, that is, not the work that he has to do, mostly painting houses, in order to earn the money he needs to survive), drinks and smokes too much, fights with his ex, sits in bars until closing time and then leaves those bars and awakens usually in his or a buddy's truck in a ditch, high in the hills, bruised, covered in mud and mosquito bites, every hour after leaving the bar a fading blur. After one typical rough night, Barlow wakes up, and starts writing a story about a "woman and a man with a little child going down a sidewalk late at night." He imagines that they're in New Jersey or somewhere like that, the street's dark, and it's raining. He wonders what's going through the little girl's head, a girl who didn't choose these parents or this life or this dark street, but now has to run to keep up.

The novella ends with a moving passage that reveals the deep affection Brown had for his characters, the genuine desire he had to somehow fix them, or if not that, to acknowledge them, and the tenuous distance he was able to put between these people he knew so well—with whom he drank nightly, whose addictive problems he shared—and himself as their clear-eyed chronicler. Writing and redeeming these marginalized, tough-to-like people was Larry Brown's reason for living, in addition to his wife and children.

The girl's hair "was long, brown, and her arm was stretched out in front of her as she held onto her mother's hand, and her feet were flying."
I kept that image with me, desperation, flight, fear.... I went to the refrigerator and got a beer. I sat back down at my machine. I had to find out what they were running from. I had to find out if the little girl was going to be safe. I didn’t know if she would be or not. But whatever it was she was running from, I knew I had to save her from it, and that I was the only one who could do it. They were running, running, the cars going by, and I could see the slippery sidewalks, and the lights in the stores, and I could see my mother and my father looking back over their shoulders at whatever was chasing us, and I ran as fast as I could, terrified, not knowing how it would end, knowing I had to know.
That startling, and inevitable, shift from the fictional to the autobiographical, the origin of the impulse to write, to attempt to make art, is profoundly moving, Brown at his honest best. He was aware that his stories, in their fierce reckoning with dejection and ugliness, were difficult for some to read, that they "hurt people too bad to read it. Because it was too honest. And too brutal some say. And the only way I can really defend myself against any of that is to say, ‘Well, yeah it’s brutal, but I think that it’s honest.’ And what I think you’ve got to do is share this experience with these people. That's what I’m writing about. That’s what the story is about. And you just can’t tack a happy ending on things."


Here's Brown on the inspiration he found in the bars in and around Oxford, Mississippi, an excerpt from Guy Hawkins's terrific documentary The Rough South of Larry Brown, portions of which can be found here.

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