Joe (Algonquin, 1991) by Larry Brown is so clearly influenced by the work of William Faulkner that sometimes you must remind yourself who it is you’re reading. This does not mean that Brown’s work is not his own, only that the strong influence of his predecessor is evident. The novel tells parallel stories: one about a poor, itinerant family that drifts from one place to another. The father (Wade) is lazy and shiftless. His wife is so victimized by him and their situation that she hardly speaks. An adolescent daughter is so disgusted with the father and their lives that she leaves (she becomes the subject of Brown’s later novel Fay), and her younger sisetr has stopped talking. The only person in the family interested in breaking out of this life is a fifteen year old boy named Gary. He wants to find work, make a living for his family, and improve their circumstances. The family is reminiscent of the Snopes family in Faulkner’s story “Barn Burning,” with a taste of the Bundrens in As I Lay Dying thrown in for good effect. The opening scene that describes this family walking along a deserted country road in tone and language specifically suggests the opening chapter of Light in August. The contending forces in this family are the father’s selfish destructive urges and the boy’s impulse to do better.
The title character of the novel is the focus of the second story. Joe is a middle-aged man who supervises a gang of workhands who are poisoning trees in a forest to prepare for the planting of pine trees. That work, destroying a forest that has been there since anyone ever moved to the area, is an underlying motif—it describes Joe’s own life, and the more general life of the town, which is somewhere near Oxford, Mississippi. Joe’s wife has divorced him, apparently because of his drinking and his violent temper. They still love each other. Joe loves his family, including his pregnant daughter, but he rarely if ever visits, even after his grandchild is born. He drinks a lot, all the time, driving around with a bottle of liquor and a case of beer and ice in his truck. He makes money off his job and from gambling. He apparently does well as a gambler because he always seems to have enough money and frequently gives it to his wife and daughter. Joe befriends Gary, hires him on his crew, and they become friends. Joe is basically a decent soul. He can’t control his weaknesses. He loves his wife and wants to be with her. He even tells other women that he’s too old to have sex anymore, and this seems to be an excuse he gives out of loyalty to his ex-wife. (Like everything else in his character, he’s inconsistent about using the excuse).
When Joe becomes drunk and sets his dog on a Doberman pinscher that has threatened him, a confrontation with police and a wreck ensue, and events seem to moving towards sending Joe back to prison.
Larry Brown spends much time in this novel describing the activities of his characters: there’s probably more attention to beer drinking and truck driving in Joe than in any novel I’ve read. But to what end? Yes, there’s the naturalistic impulse here to pay attention to the details of an individual’s everyday life, but there must be some ultimate justification for all the detail. Brown sometimes seems to be interested merely in describing, and if beer drinking has its own inherent interest, then he’s game. At the same time, his prose is controlled, elegant, vivid, with rare false notes.
Brown effectively portrays Joe’s character, with psychological and humanistic insight. Unlike Wade, who only abuses and exploits his family, Joe wants to be a good family member, a good father, a good person. If he’s screwed up his own life he doesn’t want to see Gary screw up his. Joe is Larry Brown’s answer to Updike, Cheever, Bellow and others—Joe faces the same issues as the protagonists of their novels.
The explosive and surprising final scene brings closure to the action of the novel, and is definitely not the product of Faulknerian influence. It seems more the influence of films like Easy Rider and Joe and Billy Jack and the Clint Eastwood Dirty Harry films. The final scene brings Joe to an effective conclusion, but it seems an artificial one to me—a way out of Joe’s problems but not the best way out.