You know Larry Brown. He’s that other notable modern author from Oxford, Mississippi. The one who wrote his way out of a day position with his local fire department. He may not have made as many trips to the bank as the Grisham guy, but he has enough literary awards lying around to maintain equal status on par with famous ghosts, past and present. All of which puts the legend of Rowan Oak in good hands.
So what is it about the South that breeds great writers? The ones who punch out discourses on the human experience in its coarsest element as second nature intuition. Perhaps it’s in the water or air. Being one, Larry Brown knows the true heart and mind of a native Southerner. He also knows grit like gruel. It became like a daily meal of sorts. Back in his salad days, his many early attempts at becoming published were rejected time and again. He was continually going back to the typewriter, polishing those keys in a love and hate relationship, recreating, reinventing, until he stamped out something that was acceptable to someone other than himself. He could have written a treatise on it and almost did. The subject eventually became the basis for a selection of short stories. The publishing of Big Bad Love put him on the map as a contender and was recently reinterpreted as a movie.
Embarking on a journey through the South, travelling the back country roads past the pine forests and the cotton and rice fields fertilized with the blood, sweat, and tears of the ancients, an acute ear might catch the wind of untold stories. This is the bottom land of America, toiled with the labor of subsistent lives time and again. There is no lower. Imagine that the boat has fallen off the trailer and it ain’t going back on, no matter how hard you try. The tractor is stuck axle-deep in bracken mud, the mule done up and died, Billy won’t be finishing high school, and Arlene is pregnant at 14 with her first child. Picture these folks: white trailer trash, the hucksters, jive artists, bottom feeders, religious zealots, roadside barterers, and the just plain ignorant lie in beds of misery and despair, covered up with blankets of hope and denial. The kind of folk, once their minds are made up, to whom hell would just be a place on the way of where they’re wanting to get.
In his latest book, The Rabbit Factory, Larry Brown makes the rounds on a dozen or so of these colloquial residents in the midst of their daily perplexities. Burdened by situation, each of our characters is looking for that safety valve of escape or salvation. Relief in any form is welcome. Drawing on the strength of his previous volumes of short stories, Facing The Music and Big Bad Love, Brown has spun the compass on lives heading nowhere fast. The needle points down. His gift for exploiting his characters’ innermost thoughts and secrets has never been keener. He gives the knockout punch often and effectively as he hurries them along to that day they knew would come, but pretended never would.
Take the butcher Domino. He’s been passing his parole, rehabilitating in the local meat locker, chopping and processing select cuts, some of them indefinable. On one of his weekly delivery rounds, he pulls off the main road for a quick toke and brew. What he soon encounters is an odyssey that will put him in direct contact with the live version of very beast he grinds daily. I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. Then there’s one Miss Muffett. A down and out, one legged, live-in spinster maid whose main chore is tending to her landlord’s pet mutt. Seeming docile, the animal proves to be a worthy adversary and scoundrel in undermining her best efforts. She never dreamed a dog could be so cruel, cunning, and vindictive as the stakes for home turf ever escalate, giving “getting a leg down” new meaning.
In previous novels Dirty Work, Joe, Father & Son, and Fay, Brown chose to keep his darlings few and close to the vest. In an ambitious and bold move, he stretches those boundaries in his newest work to the max. Like a kaleidoscope of unbelievable episodes, The Rabbit Factory reads like a gossip column merging with the police beat in some southern daily reporter. Just short of headlines, the news of the weird just got weirder. If there is any social commentary of today’s lament in this legion of the bizarre, it’s that our day-to-day is hard enough. If there is a mystery in life, then we remain relatively one to ourselves. We create our own Twilight Zones.
If you like your fiction on the bent, cruel side, imitating art stranger than truth, you’ll find a hilarity here that’s deliciously wicked. We can come to like, possibly love these characters. As hapless and hopeless, they almost seen destined to meet. Their journeys come perilously close. Perhaps had there been one more day, their fiction would have turned to fact. Never to shirk events, Larry Brown proves up to the task of leading them to their rightful place. As a mathematical equation, probabilities are likely, not endless. With those who live their lives on the edge, chance and risk are counted as sure things. Using Brown’s new math, nothing is as it seems. Soon, they all find their homes as a very personal heaven or hell.