November 29, 2004 by

Larry Brown


Categories: Military, Writers/Editors

lbrown.jpgUsing simple, elegant language, William Larry Brown described the gritty lives of rural Southerners.
The Mississippi native developed his minimalist style of fiction in the 1980s while working as a firefighter with the Oxford Fire Department. His second published story, “Facing the Music,” appeared in Mississippi Quarterly in 1987, and caught the eye of Shannon Ravenel, an editor at Algonquin Publishing. Looking to fill the anthology “New Stories From the South,” Ravenel contacted Brown and asked if he had any other stories in need of publication. Brown wrote back and said he had nearly a hundred. Algonquin published his first short story collection, “Facing the Music,” in 1988.
Brown’s debut novel, “Dirty Work,” an anti-war story about two Vietnam veterans from Mississippi recuperating in adjacent hospital beds, was published in 1989. He followed it up with the short story collection, “Big Bad Love,” which was adapted to the big screen in 2001 and starred Debra Winger and Arliss Howard. Brown later penned four more novels (“Joe,” “Father and Son,” “Fay,” and “The Rabbit Factory”), a collection of essays about writing (“Billy Ray’s Farm”) and an autobiography (“On Fire”).
A two-time recipient of the Southern Book Critics Circle Award, Brown also won the Mississippi Institute of Arts and Letters Award for Literature, The Thomas Wolfe Award and the Lila Wallace-Reader’s Digest Award. “The Rough South of Larry Brown,” a documentary about his life, premiered in 2000.
The son of a sharecropper father and a postmaster mother, Brown served in the Marines for two years. He worked a wide variety of odd jobs — carpenter, house painter, hay hauler, fence builder, lumberjack — before becoming a firefighter in 1973. Although he took one writing course at the University of Mississippi, he was mostly a self-taught writer.
Brown died on Nov. 24 of an apparent heart attack. He was 53.
Listen to Brown Read From His Short Story “Old Frank and Jesus”
Listen to a Tribute From NPR

32 Responses to Larry Brown

  1. baltimore ralph

    what a shame, or as my polish grandmother would say, ‘a goddamn shame.” i hope there some other firefighters and deckhands and trash haulers and just plaid honest kids ought there trying to be the next larry brown.

  2. Kalle

    Just did a google search after discovering Larry Brown and found this. How sad…but what an inspiration to all us backwoods folk who love to write and share our voices…someday, God willing.

  3. Kendra Jones

    A few years ago, Tom Franklin, William Gay, and I crashed Mr. Brown’s Christmas party in Oxford, MS. Mr. Brown was so gracious about it–and ended up partying the night away with us. I loved his book Father and Son. And after seeing the film adaptation of Big Bad Love, I wanted to really get to know the man. I am very sad that he is gone. But I have a fond memory of Larry Brown and the band that played that night, Blue Mountain. I also discovered in Mr. Brown a mutual fan of the North Mississippi Allstars.

  4. Joe Myers

    I had a great writing professor write me a review on a story I had submitted that said my style reminded him of Barry Hannah and a guy who had just appeared on the scene called Larry Brown. I read some Hannah, but could not find Larry and did not discover him until two years ago at the Denver Intl Film Festival. I saw ‘Rough South’ then and immediately searched out his work. I bought everything I could get my hands on and have retold his stories in oral fashion to my non-literary beer-drinking mechanic buddies. Though they will never open his books, it was my pleasure to tell them his wonderful stories. I had just read a few portions of ’92 Days’ to a friend of mine tonight and had gotten online to see if ‘Rough South’ was available on video when I saw the sad news. Our American literary landscape is…I don’t know how to put it. I’m just very sad. I know I’m not the only one.

  5. Steve Whitehead

    Larry Brown dead.Wow!At 50.Iam 53.Thats a sobering thought.What a truly great writer.Ranks with another great Mississippi writer-Willie Morriss.I cant’t express what a loss to me even though I never met him.He wrote so seemingly effortlessly and told such marvelous stories.

  6. Steve Smith

    Larry Brown …what a great writer. I only discovered him after he died. He had a deep sense of human nature and a fantastic ability to portray it in a simple, direct and incredibly entertaining fashion. I have read many authors and he is up there with my favorites.
    I was very saddened to hear of his death at such a young age. The American literary world lost a great talent far, far too soon.
    Larry Brown received some recognition for his work but he deserved so much more.
    My hat is off to you, Larry Brown, I am so sorry there will be such a short supply of your writing.
    If there is any kind of after-life I hope you know how much you are appreciated.

  7. Ben Bryant

    For those of us that saw Larry around town there was a greater presence than that usually circles literary fame. He avoided the spotlight. Deliberatly, of course, as he knew that it was not for him. A truly gracious aspect is that the man from 15 years ago was the same from two months ago. The legacy of Larry is left with the modern hill farmers, whiskey drinking, tobacco spittin, and self virtous characters that are still alive in every small town in the country. Like other great writers, his full fame may come after his passing.

  8. mike barrett

    He enjoyed hard living. He said good things happen to bad people and bad things happen to good people–that’s what he was writing about. And the humor behind it all. Lovely guy.

  9. patrick

    i first became aquainted with the work of larry brown about three years ago. a friend of mine who’s opinion in such matters i regard quite highly suggested that i give him a read. and as often happens with the works that resonate strongly with me, i was hooked after the first story. larry brown wrote hard. i never knew the man personally, but i reckon he lived hard. the writer and the writing, when it’s done properly, are never far away from one another. larry brown did the dead level stare at the ugly in a way that few writers have done before or since. i mourn his family’s loss as well as our own. i got the distinct impression that he was just gettin goin.

  10. VicU

    Reading a good story is like talking to a good friend. The familiarity and commonness Larry Brown brought to his stories was his gift. The world has lost a good friend.
    Also, as the son of an artist who died young, you can take heart that people have a unique ability to seek out true artistic quality. You will find when the sting of his loss subsides (and the years pass) that there are many in the world who know him (more than you ever thought possible). He will not be forgotten. He will likely outlast us all. Which may not be why he wrote so well… but it is something.

  11. Greg

    I became a fan of Larry Brown’s after picking up Big Bad Love in Square Books in Oxford one day. My band played often in Oxford and I always made a stop at the bookstore while in town. Reading wasn’t something that I had been very dedicated to, until I discovered Flannery O’Connor and Larry Brown. The english books I had in school in a podunk Arkansas town still had my parent’s names in them and many missing pages. He helped me tune into the channel I needed most.
    Since picking up BBL, I traveled to Oxford each time to pick up his new book. It somehow seemed necessary.
    Larry Brown helped me to connect my voice and inspiration to a world I understood and helped me to find my way to others I related to.
    We ran in similar circles, but we never met. I regret that I didn’t ever get the opportunity to tell him what he did for me.
    God Bless Larry Brown.

  12. Stephen Meurrens

    The news of Mr. Larry Brown’s existence has just arrived to me, here in Belgium. I admit I had never heard of him before a few days ago. Heard him reading a passage from “92 days”. Wow! Dying so prematurely always seems to add something to people. Especially artists. Why is that? Will definitely read him in the coming weeks! “Facing the music” is such a beautiful English phrase. But what’s behind Mr. Brown’s facing it?

  13. Brock McNerney

    I discovered Larry Brown when Big Bad Love first came out. Since then I have eagerly awaited each of his books. I was overjoyed when I discovered his Billy Ray’s Farm this weekend at the Printers Row Book Festival here in Chicago. I tore into it this morning and waas pleased to find so many authors he enjoyed. More good reading for me! Upon Googling him I discovered Larry had passed. I am devastated he has left us. Such a gret talent. He brought so much to my life. Some of his characters still live with me after 15 years. I will miss him greatly

  14. Ken Ringle

    Several years ago a friend called me up highly enthused about a writer he had discovered called Larry Brown. He wanted me to write about him in my calling as a cultural critic for The Washington Post. He sent me a copy of Father and Son, but I was too busy with other tasks to read it and, always digging out from under books sent me by publishers, I put it aside. But it lay there next to my bed like a reminder of an unfinished task. So I finally packed it along to Louisiana this summer. I finished it this morning after reading most of the night. What a stunning, stunning talent. And now I find he’s gone before I could get to him. Critics are always haunted by the many worthy authors who deserve more notice than they ever get. The incandescent power of Larry’s literary gift, however, should make us all push his books on everyone, everywhere, even if, like me, they are to stupid to read them right away.

  15. matthew

    More than a writer, A great man that had a presence like no other. I was lucky enough to grow up with his daughter as a best friend, I will miss the way larry was so easy to talk too as well as the good conversations we would have whether on a pond levee or in the kitchen as the night turned to day.

  16. Ron Tomich

    I first encountered Larry Brown in Japan around 10 years ago. The Japan Times ran a review of Big Bad Love and, desperate for a good read and curious about this self-taught fireman, I immediately trained down to a big Tokyo bookstore to find it. Eureka! I think I was in love before I reached home. Larry’s writing just slammed me, made me want to hop in a truck and find a bar, a jukebox and a aged blond twisting a cherry stem in her lips. I met Larry once at a book signing event in Chicago, but went sorryfully tongue tied when I should have invited him for a drink. Then, at this years BEA show, I stopped by the Algonquin Booth to inquire about what Larry was up to, as I always do, and got the tragic news. Speechless – I couldn’t believe the news. Larry, thanks for all the heat and inspiration and truth. For my money, nobody did it better! I’ll miss you, sir.

  17. TJ

    I didn’t hear about Brown’s death until four months later. Right away I began to reread everything. Joe and Big Bad Love are still my favorites, but he was a strong writer through them all. I hoping for a story collection, including previously uncollected and unpublished work, and more non-fiction. Here’s to Larry Brown, and life.

  18. daniel penfold

    i picked up a copy of ‘big bad love’ without knowing who larry brown was or what awaited me. i`ve now read all of his books and can`t quite believe there will be no more to look forward to.larry brown gave those without a voice the means of speaking.i didn`t know him but i`m going to miss him

  19. OldLawyer

    I really like Larry Brown’s books, especially Fay and Dirty Work. Does anyone know if he is being taught in college courses anywhere?

  20. Whisperingbreeze

    I have had the pleasure of reading “The Rabbit Factory” and also delighted in his down to earth characters.I am eager to read all of his work. It is sad that he died at such an early age.

  21. Terry

    The best tribute to Larry brown is to keep reading him, keep his vision alive. Does anyone know about any work published since his death?

  22. Scott

    I started writing about three years ago, much in the same manner Larry did. I just came home from work one day and went into my room and starting writing, and I haven’t looked back since. About six months into it, I picked up a copy of Father and Son. Needless to say, that book changed the way I viewed literature, and writing in general. He gives inspiration to all of us who’ve ever punched a clock or drove nails eight hours a day, worked in the fields from sunrise to sunset. I yearn for his spirt, and I hate like hell I never got the chance to tell him what his work meant to me.

  23. joe scotchie

    It took me two years—that’s right, two years—to find out about his death. American literature has been robbed of its greatest novelist of the 1980s and ’90s. I mourn his passing and also that of the novels that will never be written. I first heard of Larry Brown on a CNN news segment on Dirty Work. Since then, I’ve read everything he’s published. There’s nothing more exciting than a new novelist on the scene. The fact that he was from Oxford, Faulkner’s hometown, helped him publicity-wise. I can’t imagine what passes for American culture producing anothet talent like his.

  24. Onomea

    Either in the late ‘90s or early ‘00s, I came across On Fire in the Tokyo American Club library. Perusing it briefly, as one does when considering borrowing or buying a book, I was immediately taken with his voice, his style. Later I read Joe and Faye. I like him a lot, and have kept an eye out for other works, occasionally recommending him to family and friends. Last night on the internet I learned that he died a couple of years ago.
    That makes me sad. I think he was a talented writer, and I enjoyed reading him.

  25. dman

    I just discovered Larry Brown, and feel compelled to comment. He vividly describes scenes that resonate pitch perfect and I can see and smell my own memories of the south in his words. I am inspired to continue my feeble writing attempts in the hope that my words will somehow ring true to someone. I wish I could have had a few pops with him and told him he got it just right.

  26. TJ

    I was reading a collection of interviews with Larry Brown. In a later interview he relates that he had to borrow money from his agent in order to finish The Rabbit Factory. What a shameful disparity between a writer like Brown and the hacks and celebrities who who make millions off their crap. I’m also reading A Miracle of Catfish, his posthumous, not quite but almost finished novel. It’s as fine as a southern Autumn afternoon.

  27. Jean W. Cash

    I have been a huge fan of Larry Brown and his work since the spring of 1989 when I first saw him read and met him in Chattanooga. I have taught FATHER AND SON since the spring of 1997 at James Madison University; more recently, I have taught his other novels as well.
    With Keith Perry, I have put together a collection of essays on his work (by various authors) that the U P of Mississippi will publish in the spring of next year. Its title is LARRY BROWN AND THE BLUE-COLLAR SOUTH.
    I am also writing a biography of Brown: I hope that my advocacy of his work will help him earn the academic reputation that it surely deserves.

  28. Leslie Flint

    When I was in high school, I saw Larry Brown on the campus of MUW. He with Eudora Welty and other writers were present for a writer’s symposium. That day, I had two highlights… getting books signed by both authors. Both so gracious.
    To speak of Larry Brown specifically, I remember that the writers, with exception of Ms. Welty were seated at the stage behind table draped with white clothes. He was so humble, approachable, and so happy to be there and just meet you. I remember he signed my book. Since then, I have read his books. The book, Big Bad Love, was tough gritty for a high school student. For a lot of people I’ve met, I’ve loaned them my books and from there they have looked for his books to read more. It was like it opened a different world to them.
    I thereafter went to law school and on occasion saw Larry Brown on the square just mostly blending in but for the fact he was local and hospitable as we often are here. Everyone makes eye contact. He just always impressed me as such a great person. He’ll be greatly missed. I hope it gets more recognition and more people find his work.

  29. Jeff Bilby

    I had picked up his novel “Father and Son” after
    its release during the 90’s and it touched something in me at the time that stayed with me. I’m always on
    looking for books/music and I came across one of Larry Browns books and looked for something he’d
    done recently and was shocked to learn he had past away.
    I had bought many of his earlier stuff/stories and “Fay” as well as
    “Joe” & “Dirty Work”. My dad was born and raised
    in the southern Mid west area of the country
    and I was always fascinated with the small town
    life, growing up in the Northeast outside of Boston, this was a world away from Larry’s stories but the gritty life told threw Larry’s
    writings & style was an eye opener, he was such a talent and left all those who loved and enjoyed
    his works, proud to have made his acquaintance.

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