Larry Brown’s ten stories in Big Bad Love (Shannon Ravenel, 1990) are mainly about working class alcoholic men in their 30s on the verge of divorce, or recently divorced. They’re lonely for love after deserting, or being deserted by, aging and insensitive wives. They’re like country music songs of a certain type—the George Jones type—that visit and revisit the same self-pitying and self-destructive themes from different angles over and over and over. Women come in for particularly bad treatment—maybe we’re supposed to believe that is how working class alcoholic men disenchanted with their wives behave, and that Brown himself disapproves of such attitudes, but I don’t believe it. Most of the stories have different figures as their main characters, but in fact they all seem indistinguishable—are they all Larry Brown avatars?
These stories on occasion have flair and skill. They are written with a certain rustic elegance. The interior narrations that characterize most of them, always from the male point of view, are flowing and liquid and rhythmic. But they seem to exult in misery and alcohol and misogyny. They’re so repetitive in subject and tone that they ultimately leave one numb. Part 2 is an exception. A short play rather than a story, it describes a surrealistic concentration camp trial in which two male writers are accused of plagiarism and bad writing. They’re forced to have sex with fat women as punishment. The final story, “92 Days,” is a more developed narrative about a struggling writer, Leon, recovering from divorce through excessive drink and truck driving. He receives numerous rejection notices and imbibes multiple cases of beer and a promising young poet is killed in a drunken truck wreck and then his young daughter dies. He suffers a lot. When a publisher’s letter offers hope that one of his stories may be published, his life begins to look up. If only life were so simple. At the heart of all these stories is a self-obsessed, maudlin bubba sentimentality.
Is every working class man in Mississippi an unappreciated truck-driving alcoholic looking for a chance to cheat on his whining wife?