Southern Scamps and Scoundrels in the Fiction of Larry Brown

The Complete Stories of Larry Brown

“I’d asked Leon to let me borrow $10 until Friday, so I stopped at the store and got a six-pack of beer. You can’t just go through life doing without everything.” That quote comes from “Leaving Town,” one of the many blunt and brilliant stories in “Tiny Love: The Complete Stories of Larry Brown.” That attitude could fit most of the characters in most of these stories; you come into $10, your first purchase has got to be beer. That’s just common sense.

Brown, who died in 2004 at age 53, had the background and artistry that allowed him to fully inhabit the world of his characters. He knew the hidden details, and told vibrant, strangely funny stories featuring the grit and detritus of hardscrabble lives in the fetid South. The voice was plain, direct, quite often close to confessional, at other times clearly confessional. His heart was big and his arms spread wide. He didn’t look away from characters who had an obvious flaw, or a couple of them, maybe more, and they were never portrayed as less than human, beyond concern, unworthy souls. He challenged the reader to give a damn. His stories bring to mind John Steinbeck’s forgiving depictions of scamps and scoundrels in “Tortilla Flat” and “Cannery Row,” as both authors show great regard for sad-sack charmers stumbling along the sun-bleached road to wherever.

“I got drunk one night. Actually several nights in a row and it scared me. When I came to, I believed I had been on a ‘running drunk’ for two days. It was the first time that ever happened to me, and I’d always said it never would. Now I had done it, and it hadn’t seemed that hard.”

[ Read an excerpt from “Tiny Love.” ]

The folks in Brown’s stories aren’t strivers. They don’t have “professional” lives. They may worry a lot, but not about ways of altering their circumstances. It would be nice to pay a few bills, sure, but that can wait one more week; it’s hot outside and the taverns are cool. The major entertainments on display are hitting the sauce and the search for love, as love and all the tipsy complications provide the ongoing drama in these people’s lives. They might be married, but they’re still dating. There could be someone better. If you stay home at night, you might be missing out on something, not sure what, but maybe exactly the person you’ve been waiting for will be sitting two stools down at the bar.

“‘Where you been?’ she said. ‘Riding around,’ I muttered. ‘You know what time it is?’ … I left her in there, smoking, tapping her foot. I went into the dark bedroom, where my baby son was sprawled in sleep in the middle of our bed, and I took my clothes off, lay down beside him, touched his hair and the side of his face. I loved him. I knew what I was doing to him. He never moved. I thought of how horrible my life was and then I closed my eyes. Just before I drifted off to sleep I was vaguely aware of her getting into bed. She didn’t speak, and the next thing I knew the alarm was going off.”

Readers may occasionally sniff at Larry Brown’s characterization of women; breasts and curves and desirability are assessed. Racial slurs that reflect their day and age are uttered a few times, but lest we ruin our enjoyment of such great works, we should be slow to judge, because, as with the flow of time unfurling in this vast collection, 25 years from now who knows what will make us uneasy. But we very much need these markers standing as witnesses to the evolution of our conduct.

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