Rough Roads

A Southern author shines so bright he could blot out the sun.

FEW AUTHORS ARE ON AS MUCH of a roll as Larry Brown. At first best known for putting in 17 years of service as a firefighter before turning to writing full time in 1990, the Oxford, Mississippi, resident (and native) is quickly ascending to a vaunted place in American letters. A film to be released in April, The Rough South of Larry Brown, will only add to his mystique. Fay

by Larry Brown

(Algonquin, $24.95) But forget about his personality and concentrate on his voice. Comparisons are thrown around: Cormac McCarthy, for the Southern themes; Raymond Carver, for the clipped style and down-and-out characters; Denis Johnson, a similarly on-the-rise writer whose plots hover around the seediest dives and most troubled households. But Brown may have them all beat when it comes to voice; the narration in novels like Dirty Work and Father and Son, or in the short stories of Facing the Music, flows naturally even when Brown heads deeper and deeper into the uncharted (to most of us) regions of the South. In his fourth novel, Fay, which hits the shelves later this month, Brown introduces us to a troubled and naﶥ young woman unlike any we've ever met, and yet we come to love her like a family member. Fay's a pretty 17-year-old who has just made the most bracing decision of her life, leaving her mother and younger brother (and their piss-poor shack of a backwoods home) to escape her abusive father. She sets out to hitchhike, randomly choosing Biloxi as a destination. She doesn't get far before she discovers what Ian McEwan termed (in the literary sense) "the kindness of strangers"—that refreshing feeling of instant friendship turned sour by utter weirdness. Fay ducks out of her first precarious situation, then settles into another that'll change her life forever. Rescued from the hot Mississippi sun by a state trooper, she immediately befriends him and winds up at his secluded home overlooking a lake. But it's not what you think: Sam's an unfailingly decent man who's married to Amy, and the two of them instantly treat Fay like a daughter. That's the first twist: This couple lost their similarly aged daughter in a car accident and consider Fay's arrival something of a blessing or a miracle. Unsure what awaits her elsewhere and thrilled with the attentions of this insta-family, Fay gladly plays her role. BUT BROWN'S NOT ONE to riff on a single scenario, even one as cleverly constructed as this. Fay's travels don't end here, but they may wind up here. First she has to get to Biloxi and undergo a series of ordeals and a relationship with a man that will confront her with her feelings about the family—the families—she left behind. Paced with a subtlety that only our great Southern writers know how to achieve, Fay is peopled with characters that Brown sketches with the most intricate human elements. When Sam takes Fay out on his boat, the narrator looks at him through Fay's eyes: "All he had on was a pair of blue jeans and they were wet to the knee, his feet covered with sand. Gray hairs on his chest that looked like wire." As in his other books, bad things happen, but Brown's a master at tempering the most shocking and unsettling events with a subdued, innate charm. Yet he never plays the Southern card; like Carver, Brown's setting is more national than regional, even if he's zooming in on a particular trailer park or three-bedroom colonial. The same goes for his treatment of character; Fay should seem foreign to those of us who haven't lived in a depressed area of the Deep South, but within the space of a few chapters her soul-searching journey becomes a universal one—albeit suffused with Brown's canny touch.

 
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