• Larry Brown’s Long and Tortured Struggle to Make Himself Into a Writer

    Jonathan Miles Remembers His Friend

    Larry hated me telling this story. But Larry also understood that the most natural place to begin is at the beginning, and this was ours.

    Late in 1992 I was sitting at the upstairs bar at the City Grocery in Oxford, Mississippi, when a man approached me. He was older than me by a couple decades: neither tall nor short, sparely built, with doleful-looking eyes and a narrow face etched in worry lines. Shyly, in a smoky, murmury drawl, he asked if I was the one who’d written the short story in that week’s issue of SouthVine, a local alt-weekly. I told him I was. “My name’s Larry Brown,” he said, and while this should’ve knocked me back, it didn’t. Larry had published four books by then, the covers of which I’d seen down the block at Square Books, but I’d yet to read any of them. The writers I was reading then were all long dead; literature, I guess I thought, was the handiwork of ghosts. I was too young and too dumb, in other words, to feel any weight in the moment; I certainly didn’t sense the gears of my life shifting.

    He said a few generous words about the story, and, softened, I admitted it was the first piece of fiction I’d ever published. This triggered something in him—a flash of a grin, a gleam in his expression—that I’d only understand later. “My wife and I are headed downstairs to eat some quail,” he said, pointing behind him to a woman who stood waiting with a look of tender exasperation. “Why don’t you come on down with us and we’ll celebrate?”

    I need to be honest here: My stomach hollered yes before the rest of me did. On that night, like many before and after, I had about eight dollars to my name—enough for a few beers and, if any bills remained, a half-pint of chicken salad from James Food Center. (Mary Annie, Larry’s wife, would later say that’s why she put up with him inviting some random kid to dinner with them—I was clearly starving.) The City Grocery, now a Mississippi dining landmark, was brand-new that year. While the upstairs bar was humble and rowdy, with drinks served in plastic cups and a rack of Zapp’s potato chips behind the bar, the downstairs restaurant was urbane and elegant—what back then we called fancy. Candlelight shimmered across white cotton tablecloths. Servers carried expensive bottles of wine as gently as they would infant children. The green beans called themselves haricots verts.

    We drank and ate and smoked and talked: about writing, some, but more about reading. Larry talked about writers the way other folks talk about athletes: staggered by their prowess and feats, quoting lines and scenes as excitedly as one might recount a game-buzzer three-pointer. We talked about music, too: another subject that always brought a glow to him. But something was gnawing at him. Every now and again, sipping a Crown and Coke, he’d glance darkly at a neighboring table, and then at Mary Annie, who’d shake her head no. Tracking his glance, I saw two couples at the table: two gray-haired men, wearing suits, with two women glinting with jewels. They had easeful laughs that, at a certain volume level, caused Larry to tighten. The more he drank, the more he kept glancing.

    Finally he stubbed out a cigarette, wadded his napkin onto the table, and stood up. These were quick angry gestures, but Larry was smiling: an inscrutable, boyish smile. He walked over to the table, placed the toe of his cowboy boot on the edge of one of the men’s chair, hopped onto the table, and started—dancing. Dancing, yes: a slow tabletop version of the twist, his boot heel stirring a plate of shrimp and grits, Larry swiveling his hips and pistoning his elbows and all the while wearing a look of profound satisfaction. The restaurant, of course, froze; even the servers stopped mid-stride. The only sounds were the music, and the clinking of plates and flatware under Larry’s shuffling boots. The two couples at the table stared down into their laps. Mary Annie rolled her eyes and hid her face. But I kept staring, enthralled, even mesmerized, until the song ended, when Larry descended from the table, took his seat again, and, as though nothing had happened, lit a fresh cigarette and resumed what he’d been saying about Flannery O’Connor.

    I didn’t know then why he’d done it. (One of the men, a local banker, had refused Larry a loan—insultingly, I suspect—when he was trying to quit his job at the fire department to write full-time.) I didn’t know about his long and tortured struggle to make himself into a writer, the infinite rejections he’d endured (from dozens of editors and at least one banker), the faith to which he’d clung when almost everyone and everything suggested he quit, the singular literary vision that emerged only after he’d typed his millionth midnight sentence on Mary Annie’s old Smith-Corona typewriter, the deep roar of his artistry. All I knew, in that moment, was that I wanted to hang out with this guy forever.

    He wrote about people whose lives have come to feel stunted, or unmoored, and who find themselves unable or unwilling to resist perilous impulses…

    Larry Brown wrote about human frailties. He wrote about people whose lives have come to feel stunted, or unmoored, and who find themselves unable or unwilling to resist perilous impulses: for sex, for alcohol, for violence, for numbness, for the kind of crazed love that doubles as a wrecking ball, even for art. He wrote about people in dire straits—emotional, financial, romantic, existential—who often choose, with varying levels of awareness, to make things more dire: to burn it all down, in some cases; in others, just to feel a new kind of heat. Among Larry’s many strengths as a writer, maybe foremost, was a kind of negative capability: He never flinched. His characters flowed onto the page without dilution or filtering, their defects left intact—their confusions, bigotries, lusts, fears, cruelties, all the sediment of their weaknesses. That’s one reason, aside from deadline glibness, that reviewers sometimes likened his stories’ effects to moonshine’s: they burn, they bite, they leave a scalded sensation in your chest. Larry never sought for us to admire his characters, or even to side with them; but he refused to let us scorn or pity them either. What he asked us to afford them was the same thing he applied, rigorously, to their creation: unsparing empathy. The source of his achievement, I think, is this very empathy—his clear and tender regard for human frailties, his adherence to Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s assertion that both good and bad people are invariably less so than they seem. It also happens to be the one thing he didn’t have to teach himself when, in the autumn of 1980, he decided to become a writer.

    Not that he set out to write about the broad spectrum of human frailties in Lafayette County, Mississippi—not at first, anyway, and not at second either. No, after lugging Mary Annie’s old typewriter into their bedroom that autumn, Larry Brown set out to write about a man-eating bear terrorizing Yellowstone National Park. The ambition, then, was merely to earn some extra money, but with his mind instead of his hands.

    He was 29 years old, and the father of three young children. (A fourth, Delinah, died shortly after her birth in 1977.) For seven years he’d been working as a firefighter in Oxford, the county seat. Before that, and also on his offdays from the fire department, he’d worked as a grocery sacker, housepainter, hay hauler, pulpwood cutter and hand-loader, fence builder, bricklayer’s helper, carpenter, carpet cleaner, truck driver, forklift driver, dockworker, pine-tree planter, timber deadener, surveyor’s helper, plumber, and answering-service employee. The cumulative weight of these jobs was sapping him; his own life, as thirty loomed, was beginning to feel stunted. His father had worked as a sharecropper then a factory worker before dying at the age of forty-six, a destiny Larry didn’t wish to inherit. “I didn’t want to work with my back for the rest of my life,” he later told an interviewer. “I didn’t want to remain poor. I wanted my children to have better opportunities than what I had. I wanted to work for myself. I saw people work their whole lives in factories, standing on concrete forty hours a week, and I didn’t want that life. I wanted more than that from life.”

    The means to that end, he thought, might be writing. As Larry would later concede, this scheme of his was, at first, almost tragicomically naïve. Merit of the work notwithstanding, fiction pays dividends the way slot machines do: lavishly for some, meagerly for others, none for most. The Man Booker Prize, as I write this, has just been awarded to the northern Irish novelist Anna Burns, for her third novel; she relied on food banks to sustain her during its writing. But Larry had more than just these structural odds stacked against him. Aside from school assignments, he’d never written before: not as a child, not as a teen, not ever—he was starting from scratch. The last piece of writing he’d done, a senior term paper about deer hunting, earned him an F, derailing his high-school graduation. Hence Mary Annie’s dry, muted response when Larry announced his intention to write: “Oh yeah?” A shrug. “Well . . . okay.”

    The killer bear novel—all 327 single-spaced pages of it (“I didn’t even know about double-spacing,” he’d later say)—came bouncing back from publishers, as did the next four novels he wrote. (As with first loves, however, Larry never quite forgot that first novel; you’ll see it affectionately lampooned in his story “The Apprentice.”) The short stories he wrote suffered the same boomerang fate. “I know I’m ignorant of things like theme and mood, grammar in places, the basic things,” he wrote to the editor Gordon Lish in 1983, upon receipt of a rejection. “You’re talking to a twelfth-grade flunkout here.”

    “I know I’m ignorant of things like theme and mood, grammar in places, the basic things,” he wrote to the editor Gordon Lish in 1983, upon receipt of a rejection. “You’re talking to a twelfth-grade flunkout here.”

    Yet Larry Brown’s ascent, from his humble, almost impetuous start to his eventual rank among the vanguard of American realists, wasn’t quite so improbable as some observers have characterized it. The idea of fiction writers as trained professionals—all but licensed by the nation’s guild of MFA programs—is a relatively recent one. The writers with whom Larry was most familiar in 1980—Jack London, Zane Grey, Stephen King, even William Faulkner—had essentially done what he was setting out to do: taught themselves to write while supporting themselves with other jobs, channeling their imaginations into words, and, consequently, themselves into a new and more vivid life. “I had one burning thought that I believed was true,” he later wrote. “If I wrote long enough and hard enough, I’d eventually learn how.”

    This is where, in the cinema version, you’d see the writer at his desk. Fingers clacking typewriter keys. Wadded-up paper overflowing a trash can, cigarette butts clumped in an ashtray. (Larry’s editor, Shannon Ravenel, once told me she could tell immediately when a manuscript of Larry’s entered her office—the smell of Marlboro smoke, even through the envelope, would herald its delivery.) Through a window you’d glimpse the seasons passing: the steel-colored Mississippi winter morphing into the yellowy-green dog days of summer. Maybe a calendar on the wall, its pages blowing off as in old-timey films.

    But the typewriter, in that scene, as in Larry’s life, wouldn’t ever stop clacking.

    Larry wrote ghost stories, Westerns, Civil War stories, African hunting tales, and detective stories. He wrote tongue-in-cheek outdoors instruction (under the pen name Uncle Whitney) and essays about gun safety, coon hunting, and lingerie. In the meantime he tried enrolling, as a special student, in a one-semester writing class at the University of Mississippi. When the instructor, the novelist Ellen Douglas, asked if he’d written anything before, he said yes ma’am—three novels and about a hundred short stories. (“Come to class,” she told him.) Through Douglas he discovered Dostoyevsky, Conrad, Ambrose Bierce, and Flannery O’Connor—and also the existence of a bookstore on the Oxford town square, which he’d somehow failed to notice. Its owner, Richard Howorth, added Raymond Carver and Harry Crews and Cormac McCarthy to Larry’s self-styled syllabus. Season by season, book by book, the scope of Larry’s ambition began broadening, his determination hardening all the while. “Know this,” he wrote to Lish. “I pump a fire truck ten days a month but that ain’t my life’s work. Writing is. And nothing has happened yet to make me change my mind.”

    The only thing that came close to deterring him was the walk from the mailbox. It stood on the side of Highway 334, about eighty yards from Mary Annie’s mother’s house, where they were living in the early eighties and where Larry’s eldest son lives now. (Larry would build another house on the property, in 1986, and move the family there.) He’d walk out there every afternoon, on days when he wasn’t at the firehouse. Mary Annie grew to hate watching him return, carrying a deadening stack of manila envelopes: his stories, all of them returned to him affixed with form rejection notes, some stories clocking ten, twelve rejections. It sank him every time. He’d walk back slowly, as though studying the gravel.

    Until one day he didn’t. One day Larry got an envelope—letter-sized, the right kind—and this time he came up the driveway fast. Easyriders, a magazine for Harley-Davidson riders (and the breast-bar-ing women who love them), was publishing a story of his. First publication carried, for him, an intense and specific type of joy—the ecstasy of validation, as though his passport had been stamped for entry into a new and greener land. (His memory of it, I think, was the source for the grin he gave me, and the dinner invitation, when I revealed I’d just published my own first story: the headwaters of our friendship.)

    When the story appeared, in the June 1982 issue, Larry’s mother, Leona, went seeking a copy at an Oxford newsstand. The salesclerk hesitated to hand it to her. One imagines the clerk anxiously scanning the cover, with its pouting, crimped-hair model, the words “evil, wicked, mean, nasty” printed on her tank top, a cover line beside her hip promising “Lotsa Motorcycle Women!” Finally he said: “Mrs. Brown, you’re a nice lady. Why’re you buying this magazine?” I never heard what Leona said back to him, but I suspect it was the same thing the writer Lewis Nordan’s mother exclaimed when she went seeking a story of his in an unfamiliar-to-her magazine called Playgirl: “My son’s in there!” Leona Brown, it bears noting, was a spectacularly proud mother, and Larry often said his mother’s reading habits—family legend says she read every book in the Oxford library—were the seeds of his own. In 1991, he inscribed his second novel, Joe, to her as follows: “For Mama, the most important one . . . It was a long time coming, but the world sees it now. I know some laughed at my dream but you never did. Thank you for my life. Your loving son, Larry.”


    tiny love

    From the Foreword to Tiny Love: The Collected Stories of Larry Brown. Published by Algonquin Books, a division of Workman Publishing. Copyright 2019 by Jonathan Miles.

    Jonathan Miles
    Jonathan Miles
    Jonathan Miles is the author of the novels Dear American Airlines, Want Not, and Anatomy of a Miracle. He is a former columnist for the New York Times and has served as a contributing editor to a wide range of national magazines. His journalism has been included numerous times in the annual Best American Sports Writing and Best American Crime writing anthologies. A former longtime resident of Oxford, Mississippi, he currently lives along the Delaware River in rural New Jersey.

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