And somehow, wherever you are, it always seems to be enough.
It’s difficult to articulate just how much Larry Brown meant to me when I was a young man making my first attempts at writing. Anyone who’s been there, I’m sure, understands. Those first few writers that you really get into—those writers who you, essentially, want to be—hold sway over you in such a deep and complicated way. Seeping into you, their writing is a drug to which you become hopelessly addicted.
I remember the day I discovered Larry Brown. 1996. I was at a bookstore in Gainesville, Florida, called Omni Books. On 34th Street, it was a place I went to often because of its proximity to the two restaurants I worked at, Leonardo’s by the Slice and The Pizza Palace, for most of my three years in that strange and oscillating Neverland of Gainesville. I remember picking up Facing the Music first, then Big Bad Love. The covers, being Vintage Contemporaries releases, were not that interesting. But there was the Harry Crews blurb on the back of Facing the Music. Barry Hannah was on there too, but I didn’t know who he was yet, which was probably a good thing: he’d have thrown me then. I wouldn’t have known what to do with his strange, modern tall tales. He’d have been too much, too soon. I’d read Crews’ Feast of Snakes and The Knockout Artist and an endorsement from him sealed the deal for me. I bought both books, took them home and had them both read inside of a week.
Larry Brown taught me how to be a writer. But that’s not true, exactly. Brown taught me that it might be possible for someone like me to be a writer. Brown didn’t seem like a natural candidate for a writing apprenticeship, and neither did I. I felt more kinship with Brown than I did someone like John Updike, who seemed born to wear a turtleneck and talk like creating literature was his birthright. Brown and I were both late starters. I didn’t get into reading until I was twenty, and I didn’t dare to try writing myself until twenty-three. I didn’t produce remotely promising work until I was in my late twenties. I quit writing for almost three years. From thirty-three to thirty-six, I wrote very little and thought I would never again earnestly seek publication. As I write this, I’m forty-three now and I have published a poetry collection with an independent press. I’ll never quit again.
We try to be well-rounded individuals with multiple interests, but I’m not sure that’s the way to go if you want to be a writer. Harry Crews said that writers are “very jagged people.” That is to say, the amount of focus and devotion it takes are such that one must give up on nearly everything else. Larry Brown knew that if he was going to become a writer he’d have to devote himself to it 100%, and he did just that.
Larry seemed to a lot of folks like the least likely person for the vocation. Barry Hannah used to hide from Brown when he came around, because he didn’t have the heart to tell Larry how bad his writing was. I wasn’t lucky enough to have a Barry Hannah to put upon when I was starting out, but I did burden other, less legendary writers. Like Larry, I am hard-headed.
But we are different in one very crucial way. Larry was a craftsman. Larry was good with his hands. He was the type of guy, I gather, who could build just about anything. I’m not like that at all. My approach to most forms of industry is, like Brown, hands-on, but I have to wreck something a multitude of times—I have to make mistakes, sometimes bad ones—to learn how to do something. New to learning the craft of writing, I was almost completely innocent of how to properly construct an English sentence, but I went to work haltingly and slowly. I plowed into the blank page., I’d take a look at what I had written.. I knew it would be shit, but just producing something with a beginning middle and end was good work.
I’ve read Brown’s story “Facing the Music” at least twenty-five times. As a beginning writer it seemed to me a perfect story, but it also seemed to me like something I could learn to do. It seemed like an achievable form. The story is written in short, plain sentences, and isn’t lengthy. . The plot is simple: a man lies in bed contemplating his life with his wife, who has had a mastectomy. It’s a very poignant little story, one that is an elegant example of late-eighties “dirty realism.” Pure is the word that comes to mind. When I discovered Brown’s work, I needed purity. . I didn’t know I had been looking for it.
I found myself staring at the covers of Big Bad Love and Facing the Music at the bookstore and I knew somehow. I knew they were for me. Bland Vintage Contemporaries covers and Harry Crews blurbs on the backs. I bought them on sight. I had just gotten off work. It must have been a pay day because if it wasn’t, I probably wouldn’t have had any money.
I started with Facing the Music,the shorter of the two books. I’m essentially a lazy person, although I prefer “efficient.” I remember liking Big Bad Love less than Facing the Music, and I’ll stick to that. The latter is a more inspired work. Its stories are sparer, tighter than in Big Bad Love, and with a greater emotional urgency. Big Bad Love is a slicker and perhaps more cynical book.
Larry Brown was a firefighter, like my father had been, and that meant something to me. Larry was born and raised in north Mississippi. My people had lived in southeast Mississippi for a hundred plus years, from about 1820 to 1930, before migrating to Florida in the 1930s in search of work. Had I not read Raymond Carver first and for so long, I might not have been so drawn to Brown’s writing. Larry Brown seemed to me like a Southern Carver. But, hell. Both of them were someone like me.
Steve Lambert earned his BA in English from UNF as a Neil Gray Scholar, and his MFA from UTEP. He is the author of Heat Seekers, and lives in Northeast Florida with his wife and daughter, where he works in a small neighborhood library.
Header Image: Creative Commons, Public Domain.