Brown shifts to nonfiction in 'On Fire'

March 03, 1994|By Michael Swindle | Michael Swindle,Los Angeles Times

Have you ever steam-cleaned a hog?

Neither have I, but Larry Brown has -- with his friend Louie, and the steam cleaner at Louie's father-in-law's "combination wrecker yard/auto repair/used furniture store," where you can also buy fireworks.

This experimental method for the removal of porcine hair proved to be a success, but you'll have to go to "On Fire" for the rest of the story on the firemen's cookout at Sardis Lake, which shows that the best-laid pits don't always offer up the barbecue one had in mind.

Mr. Brown joined the Oxford, Miss., Fire Department when he was 22 years old, figuring he would spend the next 30 years fighting fires. He didn't make it.

Halfway through his 16-year stint as a fireman, he decided to become a writer -- "an improbable, foolish-sounding thing," he says.

With the publication of "Facing the Music" in 1988, however, it was obvious that firefighting's loss was the literary world's gain. His first book was (and remains) a brilliant collection of short stories about hard-luck characters in rural Mississippi that are hilarious, grim and cut-to-the-bone poignant.

Over the next five years, he published "Big Bad Love," another short-story collection, and two novels. The first, "Dirty Work," was the haunting story of two Vietnam veterans, one black with no arms or legs, the other white with no face, whose lives become intertwined over the course of one night in a VA hospital.

"Joe" was a coming-of-age story about a young boy from an extremely poor white-trash family and the rounder he patterns his steep climb into manhood after, in which Mr. Brown made his deepest bow (some say a little too deep) to that other, unavoidable, literary Oxfordian, William Faulkner.

"On Fire" is Mr. Brown's first foray into nonfiction. The book is a meditation on not only his years with the Oxford Fire Department, but also on being a husband and father, his struggle to become a writer and the changes that brought to his life, life in the rural Mississippi country he was born to, and finally life its own self.

It is clear that being a firefighter meant a great deal to him. "I love to go down on the floor and see the smoke over me," he writes, "worm my way forward to the fire, the hose hard as a brick, the scuffed rubber on the end of the fog nozzle."

His respect for the power of fire is shown when he describes it as "almost like water the way it flows, every board and nailhead in the room consumed and living in bright orange fire."

While he can joke about the job, saying that most days a fireman's biggest worry is what to eat and what to watch on HBO, he can take us into the darker side of the profession:

"Sometimes there was a weird callousness about the work we did. We couldn't let it get too close to us because we didn't want to be touched by it. We didn't talk much about the bad ones. When they happened, we dealt with them. Then we went back and ate or watched a movie or went on another call, or washed the trucks and polished the chrome. We got through our shifts, and then we went home and went fishing or hunting or made love to our wives or played with our children. We hoped the bad things we saw would never claim us. We hoped we wouldn't die in smoke and flames or torn steel like the people we couldn't save."

No Southern storyteller worth his salt would tell one story straight through without digressions, and Mr. Brown is true to the breed. Interspersed in his musings on his days as a firefighter are random thoughts on dogs (the book is dedicated to his favorite dog, Sam) and deer hunting, a very funny story about a fight he had with a mouse, an equally hilarious chapter on his ill-fated entry into the rabbit-raising business ("from which I never fully recovered"), and, of course, some thoughts on the hill country of Mississippi.

"Faulkner was right," he says. "He said the land would accomplish its own revenge on the people. I just wish it hadn't happened in my time. I saw what those woods were like. I walked in them, along their creeks, among the giant beeches riddled with squirrel dens. That's what this whole country used to be, what wasn't farmed. Big woods. Now the whole state's a pine tree. And the bugs are eating them. It's bad to hate something like that and not be able to do anything about it except recycle your paper."

Writing, Mr. Brown declares, was a curveball he never saw coming, but "On Fire," though more quiet, more contemplative and less raucous than his best fiction, shows that he wasn't afraid of that curveball. He stayed in the batter's box, kept his shoulder down and his head forward. He swung, and he connected.

BOOK REVIEW

Title: "On Fire: A Personal Account of Life and Death and Choices"

Author: Larry Brown

Publisher: Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill

Length, price: 182 pages, $17.95

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