We gave it an A-
You’d think by now folks would get used to it. Mississippi grows storytellers the way it used to grow cotton and the way it still grows soybeans and catfish, blues singers and professional bass fishermen. Critics and literary anthropologists have devised all kinds of explanations for the state’s abundance of noteworthy novelists. But none of the theories makes a whole lot of sense, since just about the only thing every fiction writer in Mississippi shares with all the others is a tendency to cringe when critics compare their work to William Faulkner’s.
So let’s get it over with, shall we? As Faulkner did, Larry Brown lives in Oxford. Like Faulkner, he writes about rural Mississippians — possibly because in that part of the country there’s hardly any other kind. Faulkner worked at the post office for a while, and Brown quit his job with the fire department after his first novel, Dirty Work, got rave reviews. Both writers took a few classes at Ole Miss — Faulkner because it was expected of a person of his class, sharecropper’s son Brown as a part of his quest to make himself a writer. That much said, Brown is distinctive enough to be considered on his own terms.
Gifted with brilliant descriptive ability, a perfect ear for dialogue, and an unflinching eye, Brown’s Joe creates a world of stunted lives and thwarted hopes as relentless as anything in Dreiser or Dos Passos — the difference being that Brown is peddling no theories of salvation, political or religious.
The protagonist is Joe Ransom, a man of strong feelings, a thirst for liquor, an appalling aptitude for violence, and unconquerable pride. ”You can’t go in people’s houses and kill their dogs,” the sheriff explains almost apologetically. ”You can’t fistfight with the Highway Patrol. Judge Foster won’t put up with it. He don’t have to put up with it. It’s why they build prisons.”
But Joe already knows about prisons. They sent him to one the last time he whipped the dog out of three cops who tried to push him around. Then he needed to subdue a passel of inmates who got in his face. After that everybody left him alone. He’ll do almost anything he can to keep from going back — anything, that is, except back down. Trouble is, folks keep pulling on him all the time. Joe’s ex-wife can’t get a date because everybody in the county’s afraid of him. His pregnant teenage daughter is offended by Connie, a girl no older than herself who’s taken shelter in Joe’s bed. Willie Russell tried to shoot him in the back on account of how Joe slapped him around for running his mouth in a dice game. One of these days, he’s going to have to kill Willie, and that’ll be that. A stark, often funny novel with a core as dark as a Delta midnight. A-