BIG BAD LOVE
By Larry Brown
Algonquin. 228 pp. $17.95
"THIS CAN'T be a living. I drink too much Old Milwaukee and wake up in the morning and it tastes like old bread crusts in my mouth. All my underwear's dirty, I can't find my insurance policy . . . " This is Larry Brown country, where they listen less to Willie Wilson than to Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin and Grand Funk Railroad -- so-called rednecks for whom there never was an Appomattox to the '60s rebellion.
Brown, a former Oxford, Miss., fireman whose first novel, Dirty Work, was critically acclaimed last year, is a high-school dropout who has received national press because of his indisputably dirt-poor origins. In a sense, he's the beneficiary of an uneasy feeling among critics and editors that attenuated middle-class angst, the keynote of so much recent fiction, is simply not enough. Larry Brown, poet of the southern white underclass, was there when we needed him.
As mirrored in his second collection of short stories, these deep Southerners are not the gaunt, mute icons of Walker Evans's photography, still less like Steinbeck's Joads who had the gumption to get up and go west. Brown's people -- beer-swilling, permanently depressed, wife-loathing men -- are stuck, in (a place like) Mississippi, in small hopeless towns, inside their own tired skins. And they make the best of it, in honky tonk bars, fleeing spouses who are all rural monsters making impossible demands on their near-suicidal men.
In a way, Brown's stories are the southern literary equivalent of "Roger and Me," Michael Moore's sadly hilarious "documentary" about Flint, Mich. Except that Larry Brown's subject, to the point of obsession, is the death of love in marriage. Almost all the stories point to or spring from the author's angry despair at love gone wrong as irretrievably as seasons advance. That's just how it is, down in Brown country.
There is a bitterness so acrid it comes out the other end as purgation, even laughter. "I wished I'd been hip instead of picking cotton," the narrator of "Falling Out of Love" laments. "I knew I'd done it to myself, staying up all hours of the night playing Assorted Golden Hits and cooking french fries at two a.m. . . ." Almost all Brown's men are divorced or violently estranged from women so terrifyingly dull, vengeful or -- in one case -- sexually voracious that you wonder he doesn't actually shoot "her first and me second."
But while there are Bud sixpacks to guzzle and old war vets still around to share combat stories that tell of a simpler, braver time for men, life is bearable. Just. "I thought about being old, and alone, and drunk and needing help," the narrator reflects in "Old Soldiers," perhaps the most successful story because of its elegaic simplicity. These are the real noises that real people make when they don't work in air-conditioned offices and go home to condos. Brown Country is Third World America, and he's proud of it.
In his better stories -- the lengthy "92 Days," about a self-made writer's day full of (too painfully plausible) fantasies, and a horror tale, "The Apprentice," about a wife obsessed by wanting to be a "creative" writer -- Brown reports on how working people live to escape and turn on each other when they can't. If you're a man, you can't helping liking his guys even when their attitudes are pure tacky. Well, Brown seems to be saying, my people are tacky, so make something of it. (Personally I think biased reporters are the best writers.)
My problem -- it's a big one -- is about the women. It's the old dilemma of criticizing a good writer -- and Larry Brown is very good -- for failing to do something he never set out to do in the first place. Brown's wives -- wall-eyed harridans or, at best, just plain aggressively dissatisfied broads -- can't quite carry the burden of his reflections on marriages "locked into position far beyond our imaginings when we'd married." When he's "uneasy about the Bermuda Triangle, and how long I could keep getting up and getting it up," or the sadness of a man and woman who "basically lived alone with each other on ten acres of land that was badly eroded in a house of poor quality," the (male) reader nods knowingly. But to more fully identify with his song of marriage as a tag match with no prizes, it's really necessary that the other wrestler be human too.
Clancy Sigal, a novelist and BBC broadcaster, commutes between London and California. He is working on a new Hollywood novel.