Occasionally I discover a writer whose works have endured thus far because they are true, not because they are necessarily pretty. If you appreciate the writings of Harry Crews and Flannery O’Connor, you may appreciate the gritty fiction of Larry Brown.
Today I completed reading Brown’s novel The Rabbit Factory. Like everything else I have read from Larry Brown, this narrative explores the trials of (mostly) poor, white, hard-drinking, hard-living southerners who long for better lives. But each character is trapped—almost powerless to extricate himself/herself fully from a taunting, overwhelming web of evil. Better lives remain out of reach due to unwise choices, bad luck, fate, and/or formidable evil.
This is not reading for the faint of heart. There is much violence herein. And there is sex. And there is physical abuse. And there are scenes upon scenes with bourbon, beer, gin, and marijuana use. But these scenes are not there for shock value. These things, I would suggest, are tropes for lesser writers (Hunter S. Thompson and Norman Mailer, e.g.) but not for Brown.
Brown excels in his depiction of down-and-outs—not to sentimentalize them, but to reveal our possible connections to them. He shows the sense of how actual people battle demons that we don’t often speak about to one another—demons of childhood traumas, wounds from abusive fathers, and loneliness that aches. His characters long to accomplish that for which they are convinced they were born but they flounder amidst cruel realities that reveal they have fallen far short.
And on the stories go–of fighters, licentious wives, hit men, lonely female country cops, men and women who press on against formidable external odds and plaguing internal demons.
If you’ve ever driven through the U.S countryside and seen neon Bud Light signs in front of roadside bars, and seen pickups parked out front, and you’ve thought of those men and women inside as if they were obviously beneath you … you might have thought, “How sad. Why can’t they be like I am?” Well, this book is not for you. Your life is zipped up nicely; theirs are apart at the seams.
But if you’ve driven by those places and thought, “Yep, I am a lot like those folks on the inside—ugly, trying to drown my pain in my own way, in a mess … but determined to push through,” then this book might grip you. You might find we sinners are a lot more similar than we care to admit.
Exposing facades of composure is what Brown does so well. But he does not do it via the high and mighty in our world but by exploring the downtrodden and morally bankrupt.
Reading Larry Brown makes the honest person ask himself a hard question: Am I responding to other people like a Pharisee or like a fellow sinner?