Reviewed by Philip K. Jason
Professor Cash’s life story of Mississippi author Larry Brown sets a high standard for biographies of contemporary authors. Her study is a model of how to absorb abundant and varied research materials into a sturdy, accessible prose style. Cash neatly balances materials about Brown’s personal life, his progress as a literary artist, the economics of authorship and publication, and the necessary relationship-building of a writer with other writers and with his public. In particular, her detailed presentation of Brown’s interaction with his editor and publisher, his participation in the marketing of his titles, and the attractions and distractions of the public aspects of a writer’s life makes for a fascinating cautionary tale.
The first few chapters address Brown’s boyhood in Northern Mississippi (tiny towns outside of Oxford) and Nashville; his early adulthood as a Vietnam-era Marine, a young husband and father, and fireman; and his slow, steady, literary apprenticeship. Cash paints a rich portrait of Brown’s cultural and economic milieu: working-class communities tied to the land. She handles Brown’s love of the countryside, of animals, and of country ways and activities (fishing, in particular) with remarkable force and sensitivity.
Brown’s decision to turn himself into a successful writer seems like an “against all odds” kind of ambition, and Cash effectively relates his years of frustrating failure and incremental trial-and-error growth in a way that create suspense even though readers know the outcome. Brown’s perseverance is remarkable, and Cash’s discussion of the sacrifices Brown’s family makes, both before and after his breakthrough, is sadly vivid.
The following chapters cover from one to three years, focusing on the writing, publication, and reception of each of Brown’s book-length publications: short story collections, novels, and nonfiction collections. These years, from 1987 until his death in 2004, are a period of great productivity. Cash tends to Brown’s life circumstances, his friendships, and his growing reputation in significant and often colorful detail.
Cash describes each completed volume, summarizing its plot line, major characters, themes, and stylistic innovations. She makes a case that Brown constantly invented more and more difficult challenges for himself, and she assesses his success through the lens of various reviewers and critics as well as through her own judgments.
Larry Brown’s trips away from home, to promote his books or otherwise build his career, often presented temptations to which he succumbed. Sometimes even being at home was no protection from periods of alcohol overload or unfaithfulness. Cash makes it clear that Brown was an honorable man in many ways, but he was far from perfect. Like his characters, he struggled with hard times, demons, and flaws. He was a good friend, but often a distant father and husband.
It is left an open question whether Brown’s decision to take his last completed book, The Rabbit Factory, away from Algonquin (his supportive publisher from the beginning) was an honorable move. His long-time editor, Shannon Ravenel (who contributed a Foreword to this study), was requiring changes that Brown was at this time not willing to accept.
In fact, one of the most interesting strands in Larry Brown: A Writer’s Life is Jean W. Cash’s description of the interchanges between Brown and Ravenel. This author-editor relationship was a highly significant one, and it is certain that Shannon Ravenel was of immense aid to Brown while the self-taught author continued to develop his craft. Respecting this relationship, Brown’s widow brought his final manuscript back to Algonquin, and Shannon Ravenel prepared A Miracle of Catfish for posthumous publication.
Jean W. Cash establishes Larry Brown as one of the most important and accomplished Southern writers of the late twentieth century. Brown was southern to his soul. He honored the struggle of poor, blue collar workers and farm workers. Though he didn’t like the term “grit lit” that was rather frivolously applied to his work, it’s not a bad term if we accept with it Brown’s place as a literary writer, not a genre writer. Cash puts him, as he was, in the company of Barry Hannah, Clyde Edgerton, Harry Crews, and Cormac McCarthy. An heir to Faulkner, he knew Faulkner’s kind of poor Southern folk from the inside out, not the outside in.
Thank you, Jean W. Cash, for this alert and comprehensive discussion of Larry Brown’s achievement.
Earlier books by Jean W. Cash are Flannery O’Connor: A Life and Larry Brown and the Blue-Collar South.