Thursday, October 31, 1996

An Interview with Larry Brown

An interview with Larry Brown, discussing his book Father and Son.
Published October 31st, 1996, in The Minnesota Daily’s A&E Magazine

Shades of Brown

By Larry Brown
Algonquin, $22.95

Back in the 1950s, nobody knew who Flannery O’Connor really was. Her powerful, grotesque, and unforgiving stories burned themselves into the reader, and only a few close friends knew she was a quiet little Catholic woman from Milledgeville, Georgia. Like O’Connor before him, novelist Larry Brown writes with an intensity that’s sometimes nearly unbearable. And like O’Connor, Brown’s private bearing belies his frightening literary presence. With an easy laugh and a quiet, unassuming charm, Brown hardly seems the fiery, unflinching literary persona that has gained so much attention in the past few years.

Brown’s last novel, Joe, evokes such a pathos for his characters that it almost transcended fiction. In his novel before that, Dirty Work, which focused on the aftermath of Vietnam, Brown took on God himself. His new novel, Father and Son, lives up both to Brown’s literary reputation and to its portentous title.

A dark, disturbing look at a small southern town in the late 1960s, Father and Son follows the troubled Glen Davis on a rampage through the other characters’ lives and deaths. Fresh out of the state pen for an alcohol-related vehicular homicide, Glen takes up old loves and hatreds where he thinks he’s left them, but as his ex-lover Jewel says, “Things has changed.”

“I like to start off with a character in trouble,” Brown said in an interview during his book-tour stop in Minneapolis, “and see where it leads. That’s where I start all my stories, with a character, and I like to follow them around, see what happens, and eventually it leads to some kind of conclusion I didn’t know was coming.”

Glen begins as a character similar to the main character of Joe—a flawed but essentially sympathetic character in trouble. But Brown takes the familiar misunderstood rebel theme and stretches it to its breaking point. His first night back, Glen kills Barlow, a slimy bar owner he sees as the reason for his prison sentence. Then he goes on to rape a young woman he picks up around town, all the while ignoring his responsibilities to Jewel and to his four-year-old son, David.

“I wanted to see if I could create an even less sympathetic character than Joe, but still make you care about him,” Brown says. “I wanted to have this nasty guy with almost no redeeming qualities, but make you look at his past, what made him the way he is—and maybe not like him, but at least see where he’s coming from.”

This isn’t easy, but as Glen increases in his evil intensity, the reality of his circumstances makes him understandable, if not sympathetic. Brown’s greatest talent lies in his ability to get inside different characters’ heads, and with Glen he succeeds in creating a horrific, warped mind that's entirely believable—even inevitable.

As the reader’s hopes turn away from Glen, the characters he sees as his enemies rise to take his place. The novel’s beginning paints Glen’s father, Virgil, as a worthless drunk, but as Glen’s credibility shrinks, Virgil’s character gains in richness. Bobby Blanchard, the town’s lawman and Jewel’s new suitor, also slowly shifts in the reader’s sympathy. From seeming like little more than the ominous and antagonistic face of law, Bobby ultimately ends up as one of the novel’s most genuinely likable characters.

“I didn’t know any of these things was gonna happen,” Brown says. “I just had this idea of a guy coming back home after being in prison—coming back and going to the cemetery right away to see his mama. I brought in Bobby’s character in the cemetery, but I didn’t know how tied up he was gonna get, how much he has to do with Glen’s story.”

As the novel progresses, the relationships become more and more intertwined. The reader slowly learns that Virgil dated Bobby’s mother, Mary, before World War II, and that Bobby and Glen are half-brothers. Hence the Dostoyevskian rivalry. Interestingly, Brown discovered these relationships at about the same time the reader does:

“I kind of figured it out when I was looking at Virgil and Mary’s pasts,” Brown says, “and as Mary became a more important character, the relationship just sprung up—and it made a lot of sense. It also made the tension between Glen and Bobby more understandable.”

Plenty of other things arose—and fell away—as Brown wrote Father and Son:

“Originally, it was gonna be a novel about the Civil Rights situation in the ’60s,” Brown says, “and Vietnam too. I grew up with segregation, and I wanted to write something about what it was like, but those things got pushed aside as Glen’s story got going. It just turned into a story about these characters instead.”

Still, Brown keeps a keen eye on the novel’s race relations. He paints a subtle portrait of the small southern town (based on his own town just outside of Oxford, Mississippi), and the levels of power are apparent, even if they aren’t the novel’s focus.

Brown creates the town and its inhabitants so organically that, even just a few pages into the book, the reader develops a mental map of its layout. As with the best fiction set in small towns—Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio or Peter Hedges’ What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, for instance—Father and Son succeeds in making you think you’re there.

“I keep an eye on the things you see every day,” Brown says, “the roads, the trees, the wind on the grass, the rise and fall of the water. Without that stuff you don’t really get a good sense of place.”

Even compared to the awesome power of Joe and the hilarious pain of his second story collection, Big Bad Love, Brown outdoes himself in Father and Son. His sense of detail is at its peak, and the writing itself achieves a new level of poetry for Brown.

“I sure do like a pretty sentence,” he says. And with his uncanny gift for evoking the humanity—and inhumanity—of his characters, Brown builds the narrative with layer upon layer of penetrating and, at times, heart-stopping lyricism.

William Faulkner (who shares Brown’s hometown), upon deciding to become a writer, noted that it was a fine thing to be able to create a man who has a shadow. Larry Brown’s writing embraces this notion of real characters whose lives hold true consequence, and with every sentence, Brown makes his characters actually live. With such nuanced attention to the things that make us human, Father and Son confidently places Brown among this country’s finest contemporary writers.

—David Wiley

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