Novel plumbs the lower depths, where even love cannot reach

November 24, 1991|By Diane Scharper

JOE.

Larry Brown.

Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill.

345 pages. $19.95. Joe looks back at the old man and the boy as they face each other in the dust of the road. Then he sees the man throw the boy onto the ground. The boy is on his back, holding his pockets. The old man paws at him. Joe doesn't wait to see any more.

Readers familiar with Larry Brown's powerful anti-war novel, "Dirty Work," and with his two collections of short stories, will recognize the misbegotten characters who people "Joe," his second novel. At best, they are desperate inhabitants of a bleak world. At worst, they are degraded, feral creatures.

Wade Jones, a migrant worker, is one of the worst. A murderer, a thief, a coward, he's abysmally cruel to his pitiable wife and children. He gets picked up for drunkenness: "Chickens dead three days in the sun had never smelled so rank."

With his overalls flopping around his legs, he walks along "like some draft animal strapped into a lifetime of hard work." Furthermore, alcohol has so warped and perverted Wade's brain that his thinking is merely a burlesque of human intelligence.

The novel focuses on Wade, his son, Gary, and on Joe, the man who attempts to help Gary. When the story opens, Wade is abusing his mentally unstable wife, his two daughters -- he's so thoroughly traumatized one that she cannot speak -- and his son, Gary.

Innocent, almost unbelievably naive at 15, Gary is illiterate, unable to sign his name. A hard-working, warm-hearted boy, he expects little from life; he hopes only to have his own pickup truck and food for his impoverished family.

Gary and his family live in an abandoned log cabin. "A broken-backed and discarded dwelling," it sits on a hillside of snarled vegetation in backcountry Mississippi. A barren, menacing atmosphere hangs over the nearby woods. The only neighbors are wasps (one of the rooms in the cabin contains a large wasps' nest) and snakes: "their dry sour smell [lingers] like dead vines in the garden." There is no food, and Gary must scrounge through the local Dumpster.

Into this grim story comes fiftyish Joe Ransom. Joe drinks, gambles, and visits houses of ill repute. (Although the story is set in the present, Joe takes no notice of AIDS.) A sensitive man, Joe drinks to anesthetize himself. "Pain was marked in those eyes so deep, it was like a color . . . old love unrequited. . . ." Alienated from his wife and two children, Joe works as a foreman for a lumber company and meets Gary.

Admiring the boy, he immediately feels protective toward him. When he witnesses Wade Jones' cruelty, Joe Ransom is incensed and tries to save (Mr. Brown plays on the name "Ransom") Gary from his father.

Salvation is impossible, though, given Joe's drinking problem and Wade's mistreatment of his son. Mr. Brown seems to have been influenced by John Steinbeck's "Grapes of Wrath" and Erskine Caldwell's "Tobacco Road." But his characters struggle against the dark side of their own nature and not against social conditions.

Mr. Brown has written a vivid but heartbreaking novel. It tells the story of life as it should never be, but as it so often is. In this story, nothing -- not even love -- can bring redemption.

Ms. Scharper teaches writing at Towson State University.

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