Rooting for Larry Brown -- We talk to the author about his second novel, ''Joe''

A lot of people out there are rooting for Larry Brown — everyone from the grand old man of American literature, Cleanth Brooks (Understanding Poetry, William Faulkner), to the wild and wonderful Harry Crews (Body, Car). Of Joe — Brown’s second novel — Crews says, ”If it isn’t his breakthrough book, it oughta be.”

Brown, 40, has come a long way since his first literary effort, ”a very bad novel about a man-eating bear in Yellowstone Park — where I’d never been,” as he describes it in his flat Mississippi twang. ”It had a lot of sex in it too. It was baaaad.” Undaunted by a blizzard of rejection slips, he kept writing — when he wasn’t at his real job fighting fires for the town of Oxford, Miss. Finally, in 1987, a story he’d written for the Mississippi Review caught the attention of Algonquin Books editor Shannon Ravenel, who has been publishing him ever since.

When he abandoned the geysers of Yellowstone for the river bottoms of his native Mississippi, Brown found his material. His is a stark, unforgiving landscape, dotted with tar-paper shacks, junked cars, mangy dogs, and, as Crews puts it, ”down-and-out characters who are never very far from a knife or a gun.” Brown acknowledges that some critics fault him for his bleakness. ”Yeah, they say I’m brutal, mean to women, and all that,” Brown says. ”It’s true — I believe in sandbagging a character to get him or her in trouble. There has to be a problem, whether it gets resolved or not, to draw the reader in, to provide a narrative hook. I may be brutal,” he says, ”but I’m also honest.”