Saturday, December 11, 2004

Goddammit all to hell. I can't believe I missed this and had to find out from The Oregonian's books page. One of my favorite Southern authors, and a hell of a nice guy to boot, Larry Brown of my old home-town of Oxford, Mississippi, dropped dead of a heart attack on Nov. 24, the day before Thanksgiving. He was only 53.

I'm mad, sad and irritated (I work at a freakin' newspaper, yet somehow never heard about this, good lord), to know that Larry's gone all too damned soon. I'm the least of the writers who would give him a tribute by a long chalk -- nice tributes were printed in The New York Times, Washington Post and USA Today recently, as well as a somewhat less eloquent one in my old paper, The Oxford Eagle.

Larry was pure Mississippi to me, one of the writers I think of when I think of the great place I spent seven kudzu-tangled years of my life. Oxford was a town loaded with great writers, packed to the gills with the likes of Brown, Barry Hannah, Cynthia Shearer, and of course the ghost of Faulkner hovering over it all. But while I liked a lot of these writers, it says something that Brown is the only one whose career I've tried to avidly follow ever since I moved out of Oxpatch in '97. His prose had stones.

Brown was a great, understated writer in the mold of Flannery O'Connor or Raymond Carver, with crisp, fierce sentences that told hard tales of dark lives. Through eight books, he wrote "Southern gothic" in a plainspoken, heartwrenching way. His novels "Father And Son," "Joe" and "Fay" are excellent places to start, although I've always had a soft spot for his great nonfiction book "On Fire," a unsparing, fascinating account of his days with the Oxford Fire Department, and the book that launched his career.

He was a nice fella, too, grizzled, down-to-earth and a man of few words, but his good friends -- which I'm sad to say I could never call myself -- would swear by him. I had a few beer-fueled conversations with him at City Grocery down in Oxpatch back in the day, and we featured him on one of my favorite "Oxford Town" covers of the newspaper I edited back in 1996-1997, in celebration of his novel "Father And Son."

Here's a great bit from USA Today's tribute: 'When 'Fay' was released in 2000, Booklist, published by the American Libraries Association, called it an "awful, beautiful work from the King of White Trash." That made Brown laugh. He told his daughter, LeAnne, "If I'm the King of White Trash, then you're the princess." His own label? "Aw, I'm just a common man who was real lucky to find out what I wanted to do with my life."'

Larry Brown managed to be pretty successful at his trade, but should've been hugely popular in a just cosmos. Larry had a handful of great books still in him, I know he did, and it saddens me beyond belief that I'll never get the chance to read them.

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