BIG BAD LOVE. By Larry Brown. Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill. 240 pages. $17.95.
LARRY BROWN beat the odds. He sat around the fire department in Yacona, Miss., for a dozen years, thinking he ought to be a writer. One day he got a deal on a second-hand typewriter and set to.
No writing program, no contacts, no idea of what was hot and what was not. All Larry Brown had was a sure sense of himself, a roll of stamps and a lot of manila envelopes. His first sale was to Easy Rider, the magazine of Harleys and bare breasts.
Now, with "Big Bad Love," his third book for Algonquin Books, Larry Brown is establishing himself as one of the most authentic literary voices of our generation. It's a voice framed, as many great voices have been, in the inflections of the South. It's a voice as true as a gun rack, unpretentious and uncorrupted, full of wit and sorrow, as the opening to the title story attests:
"My dog died. I went out there in the yard and looked at him and there he was, dead as a hammer. Boy, I hated it. I knew I'd have to look around and see about a shovel. But it didn't look like he'd been dead long and there wasn't any hurry, and I was wanting a drink somewhat, so I went on out a little further into the yard to see if my truck would crank and it would, so I left."
You can't read those lines without a little Mississippi twang creeping into your voice. Yet Brown's stories transcend corn pone like Montrachet transcends grape juice. But that's the wrong beverage for a Larry Brown book. The drink his characters are wanting is beer, and they buy the cheaper brands. They drink it iced out of coolers they keep in their car trunks, or they sip quarter draws in the cracked vinyl booths of low-life bars on the edge of town where they're bound to get in fights or return the smile of that sweet young thing when they were supposed to be home hours ago.
Brown's characters are always in flight, just one step ahead of a confrontation with a spouse, a lover, a friend or an enemy -- all of them representing that sharp encounter with the truth and sadness of life that could just as well be evaded or postponed a while longer. But even while they're running from it, these characters face up to it in their minds, worrying at it like a loose tooth. The narrator of "Gold Nuggets" is typical. He can't help going to the strip joint, but can't enjoy it either:
"The little chickadee up on the stage was bent over in my face, revealing all her secrets, but I figured this kid already had two kids of her own at home and a baby sitter waiting for her to show up. It made me feel slightly perverted."
There's an old saw that says the one thing a writer should never write about is being a writer. Brown beats the odds on this one too.
Of the 10 stories that comprise "Big Bad Love," two are about the life of the amateur writer, banging out those stories, suffering the rejection slips of strangers and the patronizing attitudes of friends. In neither one does the hero become rich and famous, but neither protagonist quits, either. These stories recount, in painfully hilarious detail, the schemes and dreams of the beginner: the whacky plots and ridiculous characters of the failed stories and novels are sketched with wicked realism. But both stories -- especially "92 Days," the novel-length work that concludes the collection -- turn a corner somewhere, quietly, seamlessly, and what begins as pastiche turns out, in the end, to be touching, real and a comfort to anyone who's ever dared to dream that if he worked hard and didn't quit he would someday see his words in print.
That interweaving of comedy and pathos is the hallmark of Brown's writing. His characters tumble into smoky bars and fishtail home in beat-up trucks and never say anything profound. Yet somehow, from the crude, unblinking prose, comes a sense of a compassionate writer deeply in touch with the rhythms of life. Larry Brown, through all his clowning, is the voice of sorrow.
Jon Volkmer teaches creative writing at Ursinus College in Collegeville, Pa.