James Hayman: My daughter Kate, who teaches English at a prep school south of Boston is not normally a reader of crime fiction. However, she (and her new fiancé) recently visited Jeanne and me in Maine and brought with them a DVD of a documentary film about the life and work of a southern writer I’d never heard of, Larry Brown. Kate strongly recommended that I read Brown’s writing and one of his novels in particular, a book titled Father and Sons.
The book was originally published back in 1997 and takes place in rural Mississippi in the 60’s. I just finished it and must say it is one of the most remarkable pieces of what might (or might not) be called crime writing that I’ve read in a long, long time. In the words of the initial Publishers Weekly review:
“It takes formidable talent to mesmerize readers of a novel that focuses on a deeply flawed, unsympathetic protagonist, but Brown succeeds triumphantly in his most wise, humane and haunting work to date. On the first day that Glen Davis is released from the Mississippi state pen (after serving three years for running over a child while he was drunk), he kills two men; that night, he callously tells the mother of his toddler son that marriage is not part of his plans. On the second day, he rapes a teenaged girl. Glen is a despicable person, mean, icily remote, seemingly without conscience.”
However, Glen Davis is far more than just a nasty, one-dimensional villain and this book is about far more than murder and rape. It deals with the complex relationships between Davis, his father Virgil and his nemesis, county sheriff Bobby Blanchard as well as two women who love them. Bobby, who initially sent Davis to prison, is as good as Glen is evil and it isn’t until about half-way through the book that we realize that Bobby is Davis’s half-brother.
Larry Brown, who died in 2004, was a self-taught writer who began crafting fiction during his long shifts working as a firefighter in a small Mississippi town. He is also a monument to persistence, having written roughly seven hundred short stories all of which were rejected before his first one was accepted for publication. Though Brown’s writing style is spare and deceptively simple, the depth of his characters is anything but, having frequently been compared to those of another Misissippi novelist, William Faulkner.
I plan to read Brown’s other books. In the meantime, I strongly recommend Father and Sons to readers of this blog though I must give you fair warning that parts of the book, especially the scenes of murder and rape, are brutally violent.
I read his book, On Fire, years ago. He was a wonderful writer. I think some of the posts you’re writing lately, Jim, highlight one of the biggest challenges we face–writing not just the good guys, but the bad guys, and the mixed characters, who also need to be understood and carefully and thoughtfully rendered.
Thanks for the recommendation, Jim. (We do read books written outside of Maine!) I hadn’t heard of Larry Brown – and now he’s on my TBR list. Recently we had a group post on good advice we’d had as authors … well, this is the sort of advice I value. We learn from finding the best writers, and reading, sometimes studying, their work. Again – thanks, Jim!
Larry Brown is one of my favorite writers, particularly his later work: Joe, Father and Son, and Fay. I never met him, but my wife Kristen knew him well from the Bread Loaf Conference, and she said he and I would have hit it off. I certainly enjoyed his brilliant books and would recommend them highly.