Weekly Wire
Nashville Scene Shades of Brown

Mississippi writer's latest novel affirms his depth as a storyteller

By Diann Blakely

AUGUST 14, 2000:  Since the publication of Facing the Music in 1988, Mississippi novelist and short story writer Larry Brown has been nationally acclaimed for his bitingly realistic but compassionate treatment of marginalized Southerners. The poor, the uneducated, the maimed, and the abused-who-become-abusers populate Brown's two short-story collections and three novels--including his newly published Fay (Algonquin, $24.95)--and have contributed to his reputation as "literature's bad boy" and "King of Grit Lit." But such catchphrases shed little light on the source of Brown's particular genius. Fay, the story of the 17-year-old girl who literally walks out of Brown's 1991 novel, Joe, shows with powerful radiance that Brown's truest gift comes from his singular combination of rough verbal music and gut-twisting tenderness for his characters.

Fay Jones was raised in tarpaper shacks and migrant camps; her father, Wade, is one of contemporary fiction's best villains--even the most devoted tabloid TV watcher probably hasn't been confronted with a man who trades his son for a car and his daughter's virginity for blood money in the form of $20 bills. A siren in tennis shoes and a too-tight dress, Fay represents what Yeats called "murderous innocence," and yet there's more to this novel than a dark morality play The most astonishing accomplishment of Brown's new novel is the writing itself. His prose has gained sonority without relinquishing its edgy plainspokenness; furthermore, the entire novel is told from Fay's point of view.

Brown's comprehension of women sets him apart from the crowd; weak portrayals of the opposite sex have been remarked upon in Southern male writers from Faulkner to literary newcomers like John McManus. But even in Facing the Music, Brown's inaugural volume, where men narrate the 10 short stories, the female characters share the stories' centers, their powerful presences seeming simultaneously to dominate and to haunt the narrators' words. The final line of that book's title story contains the hurt, self-hatred, and heartbreak of the scarred wife whose mastectomy has extinguished her husband's desire for her and the hurt, self-hatred, and heartbreak of the husband himself: "We reach to find each other in the darkness like people who are blind."

Similarly, Fay's vision is at once astonishingly limited--she's ignorant of nearly every postmodern convenience, including credit cards--and infinite. Brown's supple, elastic prose allows him to track his heroine's extremes without judging them; at the novel's opening, the author describes Fay as she flees her father's incestuous reach: "Fay [came] down out of the hills that were growing black with night, and in the dusty road her feet found small broken stones that made her wince. Alone for the first time in the world and full dark coming quickly. House lights winked through the trees as she walked and swung her purse from her hand. She could hear cars passing down the asphalt but she was still a long way from that."

These few sentences will remind longtime Southern literature buffs that Brown--like Faulkner, like Tennessee Williams--began his writing career not only with short fiction, but also with poetry. Thus while Brown's plots and characters may recall Tobacco Road and other stereotypical works of "Grit Lit," the Mississippian's genius, like that of his canonical forebears, reaches beyond easy categorization into a more mysterious realm altogether. Brown's aural attentiveness is part of what guides him to that place where the cadences and vowel-lush sounds of Southern speech ineffably define the psyche. Conversely, that place is also where the psyche defines Fay's destiny, both in terms of the language available to her and also in terms of silence--the silence out of which she walks at the novel's beginning and to which she returns at the end.

Summer photographs

When the dog days of August commence their humid yowl, and the body and brain stagger toward the promise of cooler seasons, readers may balk at poetry, even at a compulsively readable novel like Fay. Thus the appeal of picture-books-for-grownups like State of the Blues (Aperture, $50) and Audrey Style (Harpercollins, $40). While this may seem an unlikely pairing, each of the two photographic essays offers a time-honored prescription for treating end-of-summer malaise Either go with the heat, here embodied in the steaming blues riffs of B.B. King and others; or pretend the heat isn't there, an accomplishment that Miss Hepburn, the epitome of haute white-girl glamour, seemed to make effortlessly throughout her career as a film and fashion icon. Or if you're the sort unfazed by temperature elevations, rest assured that State of the Blues and Audrey Style are worthwhile diversions from that stack of Serious Books you've been meaning to finish by Labor Day.

John Lee Hooker's preface, Bill Ferris' introduction, and interviews with blues folk notwithstanding, State of the Blues pulses most warmly via Jeff Dunas' lush, sepia-toned photographs, all taken at the Los Angeles House of Blues just minutes before the artists were scheduled to perform. Dunas' subjects, ranging from R.L. Burnside and Bobby "Blue" Bland to Bonnie Raitt and Lou Ann Barton, not only granted the photographer the sittings he requested, they also agreed to be photographed without their instruments, which constitutes a kind of willing psychological nakedness. "Sometimes surprised and often intrigued by the fact that I was clearly looking for something other than a classic and often clichéd promotional picture," Dunas writes, "many of the artists responded by abandoning their standard poses and revealed a new and previously undocumented side of their personalities. Their faces resonate with the blues. I have endeavored to create photographs that transmit the feeling of blues music." And transmit they do, rendering the sweat and sorrow in which the blues was born, and the gut-bucket lyrical joy through which personal and historical grief are expressed and transcended.

John Engstead's cover photo of the young Hepburn includes at least a few of her "instruments": thickly contoured eyeliner, oversized penciled brows, a Herm¸s scarf, and a characteristic, coolly quizzical expression. Would this portrait and others in Audrey Style fascinate if she hadn't made Breakfast at Tiffany's; if she hadn't been couturier Hubert de Givenchy's muse; and if she hadn't discussed publicly her terrible childhood of hiding from the Nazis in Dutch cellars? Probably so. For Hepburn's face was able to "transmit" a naked and enormous kindness that was born of suffering and, in the end, was inseparable from her physical beauty. She knew, like Holly Golightly, whose similarly difficult past resurfaced with attacks of "the mean reds," that "glamour is a way of making history bearable," to quote poet Mark Doty.

Hepburn's glamour never became glacial because she refused to hide her vulnerability--something that requires acknowledging the sufferings of others as well. Thus she shines with her most unfiltered radiance in Audrey Style's photos of her "retirement" years, which included tireless work for UNICEF until her untimely death from cancer at the age of 63.

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