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'Joe' Rewards Close Reading with Good Jokes and a Hard-Won Honesty

This novel became a Nicolas Cage movie about a year ago. Rent the movie; read the book. Both are worth your time.


Publisher: Algonquin
Length: 356 pages
Author: Larry Brown
Price: $14.95
Format: paperback
Publication date: 2003-10

Larry Brown’s novel Joe was turned into a movie recently, and its star was Nicolas Cage. That’s how I heard of the book; I suspect this is true for most readers. There’s a little movie theater in Brooklyn Heights with two screens—now-closed—and in its dying days, it showed the Cage movie for about half a second. I guess most prospective viewers were uninterested.

When I went, maybe four or five other people “filled” the theater. And what I remember from the movie is that Cage caused a bit of a sensation by being serious; this was a change from his action-hero streak. Also: there was a good deal of drinking, the ending was shocking and violent, and Cage’s character had a fierce dog. Lastly, Cage’s character (Joe) made his living in '90s Mississippi by injecting trees with poison, so that a corporation could evade legal matters and clear the land.

What a crazy and wonderful metaphor for how messed up the world is! A corporation can’t just giddily, evilly chop down the trees, as it wants to, so it makes an under-the-table arrangement with some local yokels. Upsetting—and brilliant.

But who was the author responsible for the character of Joe—and why wasn’t he more famous? Well, the guy’s name is Larry Brown, and he died a few years ago. He wrote beautifully. My guess is that he didn’t become a household name because his tone was so dark, and because his characters were so very, very poor. And he eschews the temptations of a sentimental ending. He stays bleak from start to finish.

Some readers might pick up a superficially similar story in the recent novel, Fourth of July Creek. That title doesn't make one work too hard, or look too closely at the ugliness of the world, because Fourth of July Creek’s author pampers readers with a bullshit-y, sentimental, happy ending. No such comforting sentiment greets the reader on the last page of Joe.

What’s it about? Well, in his daily goings-and-comings, Joe meets a 15-year-old boy, Gary. The boy has had an unbelievable childhood. His father is a nasty drunk who isn’t above whoring out his prepubescent daughters for liquor money. Gary doesn’t know how to brush his teeth; how to interpret a red stoplight; or where babies come from.

He wants desperately to survive, and to take care of his younger siblings. He might even want to help his worthless parents, out of a possibly misguided sense of charity. One of his sisters does not share this ambition. She flees as soon as she can. Another sister goes mute because she is so upset by the horrors she must witness everyday.

Gary runs into Joe and asks for work. And a bond develops between the two characters. Gary will work tirelessly for very little. He is honest and responsible. He studies Joe as a student studies his advisor, learning a bit about car-driving, smoking, drinking, and fucking. (Joe is no saint. In one of the novel’s most arresting scenes, he pays to have Gary blown by a prostitute.)

The novel becomes a kind of three-headed fairy tale. We follow Gary; we follow Gary’s despicable father, Wade; we follow Joe. Gary is good; Wade is bad; Joe is somewhere in-between. Though we admire Joe’s good intentions toward Gary, we wish he would be a bit less self-destructive. Joe mouths off to the police even though he is on thin ice; he can’t seem to make time for his own tiny granddaughter; he sleeps with a girl who is barely legal. Not exactly a conventional hero. And this just makes Brown’s characterization of Joe all the more plausible and compelling.

Alongside the novel’s consistent sadness, there’s a surprising amount of humor. For example, the aforementioned visit between Gary and a prostitute stands out among many similarly raunchy, unpredictable scenes:

She bent over him and he looked into the deep cleavage she had.

…Her mouth came down on his and then quickly pulled away. “Damn.”

“What’s the matter?” he said.

“Your breath is awful. Do you not ever brush your teeth?”


“Well, you need to.”

He just looked at her…

He got up and set his beer down and staggered into the bathroom. She held up a blue implement that was foreign to him, made of plastic and with white bristles. From a tube she squeezed a white paste onto it.

“Here,” she said. “Do me a favor and brush your teeth… I ain’t gonna fuck you if I can’t kiss you…”

It’s been said that the best humor comes not from witty one-liners, but from absurd situations. Brown took this idea to heart. His prose is never fancy or self-consciously virtuosic. Instead, he uses simple sentences to describe bizarre scenes. The toothpaste moment is just one of them.

At another moment, Gary blasts through red lights—unaware of the consequence—then wonders why a traffic pile-up has materialized behind him. In yet another scene, Gary asks to pay Joe for one of his condiments, and Joe has to explain, gently, that friends don’t actually pay each other for something so small.

In its emphasis on powerlessness and oppression, this novel reminds me strongly of Junot Diaz’s debut collection Drown. Both Diaz and Brown wring impressive humor from dark, dark situations. Both men describe poverty without anything resembling rose-colored glasses.

Like Diaz, Brown has an astounding amount of restraint. It takes real effort to write something so plainspoken and honest. In fact, at times, the reader may miss an important event because there are none of the sparkly signifiers (excessive adverbs, cheap foreshadowing) that adorn Major Plot Twists in lesser works of fiction. If the reader does happen to miss a major twist, it’s his fault, not Brown’s. This book takes effort to digest. It rewards close attention.

Lastly, and this may be overblown but I'll say it, anyway: There’s a bit of Chekhov in Brown’s style. Like Brown, Chekhov wrote simply about great tragedy and unexpected humor. He let his characters speak; they didn’t have to alter their behavior to conform to his plans. Chekhov is a good role model—and if Brown consciously chose to study the Chekhov plays and stories, then clearly, he chose wisely.


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