Fathers & Sins

          IT'S AFTERNOON RUSH hour in Manhattan, and author Larry Brown is speaking so softly his voice can barely be heard over the traffic 13 stories below his hotel room. "I guess I'm always so shocked by the way that some people do," says the Mississippi native. He is slouched at a makeshift dinner table stirring his drink, his expressive brown eyes turned toward the floor. "All the bad things you hear about."

          We are talking about violence, and why it has such a hold on the 45-year-old author's imagination. With a memoir and four works of fiction to his credit, in addition to his newly published novel, Father and Son, (Algonquin) Brown often sounds like the creative writing teacher he sometimes is; he talks of the need to create problems for his characters that will generate tension and draw the reader in--hence the violence in his fiction.

          There is also the violence in his world. After some gentle prodding he tells a story about a 19-year-old neighbor who was robbed and killed last fall. "I believe some guy shot him in the head with a 12-gauge shot gun. And the boy wasn't doin' nothin'," he says with disgust. "He was friends with my kids and an A-student. He was checking on his daddy's place and this guy was waiting on him," he drawls angrily. "And I just don't understand why things like that have to go on."

          Of course, no storyteller will ever be able to explain away all the awful things in our world. But in the harrowing and masterful Father and Son, Brown goes a long way towards illuminating the violent events that take place over five days in a small Mississippi town. He lets us into the dark heart of Glen Davis who, just out of prison and angry at the world, robs, rapes, and murders in rapid succession. And while Brown abhors violence, he is not without compassion for his troubled protagonist. "I can see that in a certain setting or time, I can get along with him--sit down and drink a beer with him," Brown says. "I try to find out everything I can about my characters--memories, childhoods, histories. You've got to give them reasons for everything they do."

          The reasons aren't always the ones you assume, though. Glen's hatred for his father, for example, is so consuming that the reader could assume that Glen was abused by his father. But as is frequently the case in Brown's fiction, nothing is as simple as it seems. Nor does Brown offer any easy answers to eternal questions, such as why sons often take on the sins of their fathers. He writes of Glen: "Once in a while in a rational moment he would ask himself why he drank after he'd seen what it did to his father, to his whole family. But there was no answer for that either."

          Asked if he himself has ever had a drinking problem, Brown says he has "probably abused alcohol more than I should have. But I try not to." His response is polite and thoughtful. But when I mention a profile in which a journalist described his father as an alcoholic, he makes a noise in his throat and fixes me with an angry stare. I backpedal. Was that an exaggeration? "Yeah. I would say that's an exaggeration," he says. "Mmm Hmm. Yeah."

          It is Brown's father, a wounded veteran of World War II, to whom he dedicated his first novel, Dirty Work. ("For Daddy, who knew what war does to men.") A sharecropper before Brown was born, his father moved the family to Memphis for 10 years when Brown was 3 years old, before returning to the countryside outside of Oxford, Mississippi, where the author still lives. Although Brown says his mother instilled in him a love of books, he failed senior English. "I didn't care nothin' about trying to learn how to diagram a sentence," he says. "I had a bad attitude, I didn't really care. I lost my father when I was 16."

          As it happened, his father died of a heart attack while working at the same stove factory where Brown was later employed following a two-year stint in the marines. "It's a brutal way to make a living," says Brown, whose numerous dead-end jobs seem to have increased his empathy with the downtrodden who populate his books. He found a vocation of sorts when he joined the Oxford Fire Department in 1973, working his way up to captain. But his life took an unusual turn in 1980 when he started writing fiction. For two years he simply wrote on his own, mostly pulp material. Then he enrolled in a writing course at the University of Mississippi, where, as he puts it, "I began to find out what kind of writer it was that I wanted to be." Some 250 rejection slips later, he published his first book.

          From his home in Yocona, Mississippi, where he lives with his wife and three children, Brown continues to write prolifically. A full-time writer, he left his position with the fire department in 1990. "I've been happy ever since," he says with a shy smile. "All I have to do is keep writing. That's the hardest thing. You just got to get up and face that blank page every day." He pauses, then adds with a chuckle, "It only hurts for a little bit." CP

          Larry Brown will read fromFather and Son Thursday at 8 p.m. at the Hungry Mind Bookstore in St. Paul; 699-0487.

 
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