Thursday, April 28, 2011

Facing the Music, by Larry Brown

Larry Brown’s first story collection, Facing the Music (Algonquin, 1988), for the most part is a dreary series of accounts of working-class middle-aged adult life. From a man who cannot bring himself to have sex with his wife who lost her breasts to cancer (the title story), to a divorced woman in her fifties who attempts to make connections with a handyman with his own problems (“Leaving Town”), to a man who loves his self-destructively drunken wife (“Kubuku Rides (this is it),” there is little lightness in these stories and no humor (with one minor exception). The prose is wooden, the structure static, the tones monochromic.

At the center of most of these stories is a working-class white male in his 30s or late 20s who is disaffected, alienated, unhappy. These males seem to be intelligent, but they are trapped by unhappy marriages and dull jobs. There seems to be no way out for most of them, no means of escape. The stories therefore have a decidedly male viewpoint, and women more often than not are oppressive forces. An exception is “Leaving Town,” which alternates in point of view between an older woman recently divorced from an abusive husband and a younger handyman whose girlfriend sits all day in front of the television. He would leave her but for her young daughter, whom he cares about. This story is particularly sympathetic to the older woman’s situation and the isolation she suffered in a long and unpleasant marriage.

Most of these stories have a domestic setting. There is little movement or action. Several of them take place in bars, an iconic frame of reference for Larry Brown, it would seem.

Brown experiments with a number of different narrative styles in Facing the Music—stream of consciousness, alternating points of view, clinically cold reportorial narrative, dialect. One of these efforts, “Kubuku Rides,” which attempts to mimic an African American street dialect, is not successful.  Another story, “Night Life,” uses moralistic sentimentality to justify the narrator’s decision to beat a woman for neglecting her young children.  The last story, “The End of Romance,” is little more than a sustained and not especially funny joke. In general Brown’s style seems minimalist and deadpan, in the fashion of Raymond Carver.

I would rank “The Good Samaritan”—an ironic title in a number of ways—as the best in the volume. Overall, Brown’s current reputation doesn’t seem to rest on this collection alone.

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