Cautiously Postmodern White Trash: The Resurrection of Larry Brown

The canon of Southern literature is sprawling and intimidating. Larry Brown was aware. A fireman […]

CJ Green / 12.19.19

The canon of Southern literature is sprawling and intimidating. Larry Brown was aware. A fireman and lifelong Mississippian, Brown is probably best-known for his determination to become a writer; following that, his success at it. Though the road was “long and rough,” he published many stories, novels, and one memoir, until his untimely death at age 53, in 2004.

His complete stories Tiny Love came out over Thanksgiving. If Flannery O’Connor wrote about grace in violence — the mercy of God as a wildfire, or a deadly bull — then Larry Brown wrote about grace in practice, kindness extended from one ne’er-do-well to another. As Daniel Woodrell wrote in his review, “[Brown’s] heart was big and his arms spread wide. He didn’t look away from characters who had an obvious flaw, or a couple of them, maybe more, and they were never portrayed as less than human, beyond concern, unworthy souls. He challenged the reader to give a damn.” Woodrell quotes from the penultimate story, “92 Days”:

I got drunk one night. Actually several nights in a row and it scared me. When I came to, I believed I had been on a “running drunk” for two days. It was the first time that ever happened to me, and I’d always said it never would. Now I had done it, and it hadn’t seemed that hard.

Brown drew from firsthand experience with the last, the least, and the lost. He was part of what has been called, proudly, “the rise of southern redneck and white trash writers.” One magazine pronounced him “the King of White Trash.” “My fiction,” he once said, “is about people surviving, about people proceeding out from calamity. I write about loss. These people are aware of their need for redemption.” He continues that,

We all spend our time dealing with some kind of hurt and looking for love. We are all striving for the same thing, for some kind of love. But love is a big word. It covers a lot of territory.

All at once so much is conveyed: that love is the answer but that many people only know it by its absence. In his article, “Shadowing Grace in the Post-Southern South,” John A. Staunton points out that a typical Brown character is steeped in religion. He or she knows all about good and evil but does not always act accordingly. With this “shadow” of a framework, Brown’s task was particularly difficult:

Even this cautious sort of religiously informed aesthetic vision presents several challenges to the contemporary southern writer… for key terms such as grace, salvation, and redemption do not register with the broader culture as they once did. What is more, for authors like Brown—a believer, but also a cautious postmodern—the former paths to writing fiction with these concerns have been overgrown by a symbolic complex of “literary southernness,” in Elizabeth Hardwick’s term, which uncritically advances cherished notions of the South’s “sense of place,” its oral tradition, or its historical consciousness. The contemporary southern writer, then, must resort to a number of innovative narrative techniques to clear away this accretion of literary and cultural debris in order to get readers to see the dilemmas of the characters in moral and ethical terms, as real and moral ethical crises.

Brown is less interested, then, in writing about the so-called “South” than about humanity, hard reality. In his Foreword to Tiny Love, Jonathan Miles writes, “Dig a shovel into [Larry’s] stories, in short, and you’ll pull up clay; cut his characters and they’ll bleed.”

Fittingly, this collection closes with a story titled “A Roadside Resurrection,” first published in The Paris Review. This is the story I want to explore here. Miles describes it as “Larry’s most parodic (and berserk) offering — he’s channeling something real: the grotesque dimensions of faith, the burning desire for transcendence.”

When I came across it, I read noncommittally, not expecting to finish. (I hadn’t heard of “Larry Brown.”) A half-hour later, I was still scrolling, due possibly to the propulsive present-tense, or the sudden perspective shifts, or the unashamedly religious content. Some spoilers follow.

The story opens — its first words are “Story opens” — outside Oxford, MS. We find a Mr. Redding in peril, coughing terribly. Between fits, he lights up a Pall Mall. His wife, Flenco, promises to find him a cure. (Notably, Mr. Redding is a former Elvis impersonator — a mimic of the King, i.e. not the god he would like to be.)

Without warning we are transported “miles away” to a tent where, around a young healer, a crowd has gathered. A boy in a wheelchair is brought to the front. After contending with the crowd of “doubting Thomases,” the “healer is imbued with the Spirit of God” which puts “into his fingers the strength of His love and healing fire.” And then — “Heal! Heal! Heal! Heal! Heal! Heal! Heal!” — the boy is healed.

Often, this is where stories about the miraculous end. Happily! As someone who at one point participated in fervent healing circles for classmates with partial deafness and crippling addictions, I’m familiar with the sincere desire to witness a healing. The hope is not only to see this person made well but also that if they were, we could “fall to [our] knees in the sawdust,” faith validated.

More interesting, in any case, is the question of if/when healing occurs, what comes next? In Brown’s story — as in the gospels — healing is just the beginning.

Next we learn about the life of this healer. He is famous. He has bodyguards. He has been featured on supermarket tabloids and been summoned to the White House (but could not go). Now crowds clamor for even the sight of him. Billboards are rented, enjoining him to heal crippled loved ones. All around, “liberated children turn handsprings in the mud and perform impromptu fencing matches with their useless crutches.”

Even so, the healer himself is overwhelmed by his task. Alone in his car, “he takes another quick suck of the hot vodka. His shoulders shiver, and he caps it. ‘I cain’t cure everbody in the whole world!'” Neither could, or would, Jesus Christ; there were constraints of geography and time, not to mention his own physical being. Scripture tells us that Jesus grew weary from journeying, and in moments of healing, power/energy (δύναμιν) would leave him. Crowds pursued him; he would retreat. Importantly, he wanted to keep his healings secret.

But Brown’s healer is not Jesus. Guiltily, he keeps a Penthouse magazine under his car seat, sneaks a glance at it now and then. He drives fast to escape the crowds. Eventually he is captured by some farmers and taken to their inbred son who is so disgusting the healer can barely look at, much less touch, him — the utter image of “inhuman,” yet he is. Human, I mean. He is the embodiment of horror, “utter depravity” in his physical being.

Unwilling or unable to help the farmers’ son, the healer grows desperate. Suddenly, he “thinks not of retribution or outrage, and not even fear anymore. He thinks of mercy, and lambs…” In this moment, it is the healer who needs healing. Actually, it is deeper: what is needed first and foremost is not healing but mercy, universally, for both men, regardless of appearances.

A beautiful sentence comes next. The healer and the inbred son “stand in stillness, hardly breathing, locked by the touch of another hand” (emphasis mine). As Staunton points out, “the phrase ‘another hand’ is ambiguous enough to suggest that perhaps the hand belongs to neither man locked together in the basement, but to an altogether different ‘Other.’ If so, then the healer may indeed finally proceed out from calamity.” This is where we leave him.

But the story isn’t over; it had opened with Mr. Redding, in dire straits, his wife determined to procure a healing. They take off down the road, not knowing where to go; even as she assures her husband that they will succeed, you sense futility in their task. We know the healer is elsewhere, trapped.

The last we hear of Mr. Redding, Brown describes his wife: “a fat woman drunk and hauling the dead corpse of her husband down the road at ninety, sobbing and screaming and yelling out loud to God…” This image is characteristic of Brown’s work. He once responded to a criticism about such “brutality” by saying, “Well that’s fine. It’s okay if you call it brutal, but just admit by God that it’s honest.” Certainly a healing would be beautiful, but the truth is that many are never healed. As Forde has written, “we do the world no good by playing the role of pious or sentimental optimists. One must ‘say what a thing is.’ One is given the courage to be honest.” Or, in Brown’s words, “Whatever good is in this world has to have teeth in it if evil is to be dealt with.”

Importantly, the last image in this story — actually, of Brown’s entire body of work, collected in Tiny Love — is of three crosses on the roadside:

Some chuckle, others shake their heads, as if to allow that the world is a strange place and in it lie things of another nature, a bent order, and beyond a certain point there are no rules to make man mind.

A wrecker is moving slowly with its red light down the road. Doves cry in the trees. And down the road in a field stand three giant wooden crosses, their colors rising in the falling sunlight, yellow, and blue, and tan.

For whatever reason, the Reddings never found the healer, or he never found them. What Brown offers instead are these three crosses. We should have expected such a thing from the title. After all, it is not called “A Roadside Healing” but “A Roadside Resurrection.” And you can’t have that without death, and a wooden cross, on the side of the road.

And perhaps the title is ironic. In fact, I think to some extent it must be. Brown wrote in the 90s, after all. At such a time, to write anything so vividly religious, you would need at least a few layers of irony, simply to be inviting.

But we should also read it with earnest Christianity in mind. God is real in this story, after all. In such a world, the cross is the way to life, not just to healing. There is too much pain, and no magic tricks can undo it. This is what Brown’s healer realizes; this is what Jesus Christ realizes. “He thinks of mercy, and of lambs…” Resurrection comes only, and finally, through the cross — the colors of it rising as the sunlight falls.

Images © Art Meripol Photographs.