Who was the most important and influential American short story writer of the past 40 years? The question may send some people scrambling to a “tree” on whose branches have dwelled Raymond Carver, Richard Ford, Lee Abbott, Amy Hempl, Karen Russell or Mary Gaitskill, among many others. But note that we’re not asking “best” here. We’re looking at legacy.
Let’s ask an easier question: Whose entire short story output is long overdue for reconsideration? A good case can be made for Tiny Love: The Complete Stories. The 14 stories that comprised his 1988 debut, Facing the Music, and the 11stories from 1991’s Big Bad Love, plus four previously uncollected pieces, are daunting enough to be both underestimated for their simplicity and stunning for the ease by which they navigate readers through lives of the undereducated, underemployed, and hopelessly romantic dreamers. Although his works evoke Charles Bukowski, Flannery O’Connor, Carson McCullers and even his fellow Oxford Mississippian William Faulkner, Larry Brown’s characters were always his own. They’re unapologetic, yet humble enough to know their limits and the economic forces working against them. They succumb to poor impulse control and temptations of all sorts. Jonathan Miles puts it this way in his foreword:
“He wrote about people whose lives have come to feel stunted, or unmoored…who find themselves unwilling or unable to resist perilous impulses…He never flinched. His characters flowed onto the page without dilution or filtering…”
Brown’s life story is as compelling as the work he left behind. He was a 29-year-old father of three in 1977, in his seventh year as a firefighter and a virtual man of all trades. He was a self-taught writer in the tradition of Jack London, Stephen King, and Zane Grey. He eschewed the path that would prove so enticing for others (an MFA program) and instead sent his own work out to scores of magazines, only to collect rejection slips. He published two short story collections, five novels, (one posthumously released), and two essay collections between 1988 and 2004, and the strain of brilliance in these stories is powerful. Brown’s strong branch on the tree of great modern American writers is indisputable.
Let’s start with the different experimentations in form. “Boy and Dog” is comprised of a collection of lines, tumbling one after the other, telling a simple story that masterfully deceives through its form, like a tone poem where nobody knows why they’re in this dark place and there’s nowhere to go but down.
“Nightmare” delivers what its title suggests, but the darkness isn’t horrifying; it’s just numbing. “Small fire danced in his ribs. They bared their teeth and it howled and vanished; smoke left in its trail. He felt the cold take him again.” In “The Crying”, a man hears cries for help from the darkness and spends his time determined to solve the problem. “Sleep” is different. A man ruminates on why he can’t find peace in bed why others are more secure, and he keeps thinking about the past. “Discipline” is told in the form of a play, with stage directions and asides. The stakes involve a case of literary theft and originality.
Brown is a master of form and substance, leading us through something that seems tedious but becomes wondrous in its carefully contrived simplicity. The writing life also comes into play in “The Apprentice”, a less experimental and more humorous narrative looking at the life of a man’s wife as she suddenly strikes it big as a writer with a story called The Hunchwoman of Cincinnati.
“Julie: A Memory” is one of Brown’s more grueling exercises in experiment and form. It’s a full paragraph, over 20 pages, of rape, desperation, and a baby that lives beyond all reasonable expectations. What works best here, though, and it’s not giving away any spoilers, is the ending. Read through most of these stories and you will likely be captured by the thrill of Larry Brown’s endings. In “Julie: A Memory”, we leave our heroes in dire straits, no less vulnerable and more afraid than when we first met them:
“I begged him not to hurt her and he kicked me in the face. It hurt.”
It gives lie to the idea that a “killer” opening line in a short story (like the lede in journalism) should always be the element that first grabs the reader. Brown is a gradual writer, a stealth terrorist. He crawls carefully through the mess of his character’s lives at the start and will not hesitate to end his compelling stories with powerful lines. He’s daring us to demand the story continue and he seems to be laughing as he moves on to the next project.
Other stories with explosive endings include “Old Frank and Jesus”, wherein he writes, “What could he have been thinking of when he shot his best friend? What in God’s name can he be thinking of now?” Brown’s willingness to end with a rhetorical question makes his choices so thrilling. In “Night Life”, a story of infidelity and general bad choices, the final paragraph ends with these two conclusive lines: “I know what I’m doing. I have my hands on her now, and she can’t pull away.” A simpler story, “The End of Romance”, whose title sells its premise, is a humorous and dark take on a bar fight gone bad that also ends with a killer closer like the freeze frame conclusion of a cleverly filmed television episode.
Evidence of Brown’s beautifully work within his skills, as well as both opening and closing with killer images, are in full force in “Tiny Love”. Tiny is a man small in stature but he is loved by a good woman. She’s relegated to a wheelchair from a car accident in her distant past. She is “semi-crippled”, but Brown adds this condition that seems exclusive to his particular, peculiar characters: “It wasn’t that she couldn’t actually walk. She actually could. She just preferred not to.” She’s delusional, bad tempered, and only getting worse. Tiny can manage that, but he fails to understand (by the end of this masterful story) that one moment with your eyes off the screen, if you will, can cost you a lifetime of pain.
Leroy Barlow, an aspiring writer, is a recurring character in several of Brown’s stories. In “92 Days”, he’s going through a detox of many elements in his life. “I hadn’t made love in about sixty-four days,” he writes. “…I was never able to tell women just exactly what I thought about womanhood in general, what wonderful things I thought women were.”
He misses his children. He makes money by painting houses. All he can do is think about notorious writers whose “greatest hits” in their careers were their suicides: Breece D’J Pancake and John Kennedy Toole. He develops a romantic epistolary connection with an editor who seems to be the only champion of his work, and he comes to terms with what seems to be a newfound understanding about relationships.
He’s haunted by death. Roy Orbison slips away, and Raymond Carver passes to the other side. John Gardner (one of those writers’ writer names that blew up in the ’70s) died in a motorcycle crash. What legacy would Barlow be able to write for himself? The resignation of Brown’s characters to their desultory conditions and Brown’s allegiance to mixing some sort of beautiful redemption into their world is stunning. Add “Big Bad Love”, another Barlow story, and the powerful 2002 film adaptation that embraced several other stories in this collection, and the carefully messy world of a Larry Brown character becomes that much more enticing. These characters are dirty and lost, but they are never without their saving graces and hope that romance can be found in more places than just the bottom of a whiskey bottle.
The easy comparisons between Brown’s characters and Bukowski’s are that they’re satisfied with the status quo, quick to surrender to the low-class life of rotting teeth, liver disease, and early death after all the partying they can fit into their dark and rough worlds. It’s easy an easy comparison to make because it’s simplistic. But differences between the two authors becomes very clear in stories like “Gold Nuggets”. It’s the story of a West Coast life of gambling and strip clubs and bad choices made that can never be taken back, but Brown leaves us with a glimmer of hope that’s breathtaking:
Every character in Brown’s Tiny Love: The Complete Short Stories is wounded, fragile, but not completely broken. If a reader feels overwhelmed by what might seem to be a tone of regret and resignation, that reader would be missing the point. “It is not that they are not God’s children,” he writes in “A Roadside Recreation”, “[It’s that]…mankind shuns them…” This is a beautiful epilogue Brown offers his characters. The people that populate his world might be downtrodden and foraging for scraps, but they don’t go down without a valiant and highly relatable fight.