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Larry Brown, 53; Southern Novelist

By Adam Bernstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, November 25, 2004; Page B06

Larry Brown, 53, a Mississippi fire captain who arrived late to national acclaim as a writer of grim and often Gothic fiction, died Nov. 24 at his family farm in Yocona, near Oxford, Miss., after an apparent heart attack. A heavy smoker, he was in poor health in recent years.

Mr. Brown, son of an alcoholic war veteran and sharecropper, was many things: carpenter, lumberjack, convenience store employee, carpet cleaner and hay hauler. Mostly, he was a firefighter in Oxford.

Larry Brown said he wrote about the rural South and the hard-luck people he knew while growing up. (2000 Photo Bruce Newman -- Oxford Eagle Via AP)

His insomnia at the firehouse gave him the time and incentive to churn out highly disturbing prose that in the late 1980s found an admirer at Algonquin Books in Chapel Hill, N.C.

Immediately, he received spectacular reviews for his depiction of a damning existence in Southern rural America. He was compared favorably to William Faulkner, Erskine Caldwell and Flannery O'Connor for his masterful use of regional themes and dialogue.

The title story in his first short story collection, "Facing the Music" (1988), features a man who prefers the company of television to his wife, who has just had a mastectomy and craves attention. He wants to avoid sex with her.

He followed with a handful of disturbing novels, including "Dirty Work" (1989), "Joe" (1991), "Father and Son" (1996) and "Fay" (2000). His characters -- mechanics, whores, parolees -- are drunk on beer, violent by nature and sad by circumstance and self-destruction. They also love their pickups and Tom T. Hall records and despise moral rectitude.

"People who are in trouble are the kind I know best," he once told an interviewer. "They're the kind I grew up around."

William Larry Brown was born in Oxford on July 9, 1951. After high school, he served briefly in the Marine Corps, where his work with injured veterans inspired "Dirty Work."

A poor student who never aspired to college -- he flunked his high school senior English class -- he was largely self-taught as a writer and reader. He was a strange presence at the fire station, a slight and soft-spoken man who was frequently ribbed by his poker-playing cronies for his literary interests, whether Louis L'Amour and Harold Robbins or O'Connor and Mark Twain.

When he turned to writing -- an epiphany, he said, while pond fishing in a cow pasture in 1981 -- he said he just needed a typewriter, personal space and an idea.

In seven months, he had finished his first novel, about a bear on the loose in Yellowstone National Park. Evidently, it was terrible.

"Just imagine," he once said, "it was 327 single-spaced pages of sex and man-eating."

Rejection letters prompted him to write about more familiar terrain. He began finding his work accepted by the motorcycle magazine Easyriders and Mississippi Review, where the Algonquin editor first noticed his abilities.

With "Facing the Music" reaping positive notices, he began work on his first published novel, "Dirty Work." Set in a Veterans Administration hospital, it features two Vietnam War vets -- one a limbless black man, one white with brain injuries -- pondering the value of living.

Reviewer Herbert Mitgang wrote in the New York Times, "There has been no antiwar novel -- certainly no first novel -- quite like . . . 'Dirty Work' since Dalton Trumbo's 'Johnny Got His Gun,' which was published fifty years ago."

"Joe" and "Father and Son" included brawling and boisterous protagonists and a theme of paternal responsibility. "Fay," based on a character in "Joe," experimented with a young female runaway as its protagonist. She is poor and abused and seeks better times in Biloxi, Miss., which invariably do not come about.

Mr. Brown, all "kudzu cadences and soft solemn vowels," in the words of an Arkansas journalist, described himself as "certainly a happy person," despite his bleak stories.

"I'm a firm believer that if you don't have a character in trouble, you don't have a story," he told an interviewer.

"So I try to put my characters in trouble early on," he said. "What you try to do is make the character and the situation so real that it creates kind of an illusion. You create a visual experience in the readers' heads, make it so realistic that they have to read on. That's what I learned in 20 years of writing."

Director Gary Hawkins made the documentary "The Rough South of Larry Brown" (2002), which dramatized several of Mr. Brown's stories. In one, "Boy & Dog," the author appeared as a firefighter captain.

His other books included "On Fire" (1994), a series of essays about his firefighting work.

Survivors include his wife, Mary Annie Coleman Brown, whom he married in 1974, of Yocona; three children; and two granddaughters.

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