Firefighter-turned-writer Larry Brown published his first short story after turning 30 years old. He was only 53 when he died of an apparent heart attack in 2004.
During that all-too-brief career, he published six novels, a memoir, a book of essays and all the short stories awaiting readers in a newly published collection titled “Tiny Love: The Complete Stories of Larry Brown” (Algonquin Books, $18.95).
Brown was born in 1951 in Lafayette County, Mississippi, where he lived all his life. He graduated from high school in Oxford, but did not want to go to college, opting instead for a stint in the U.S. Marine Corps. Many years later, he took a creative writing class from the University of Mississippi.
An avid reader, Brown began writing in 1980 in his spare time while he worked at the Oxford Fire Department. Years later, in a nonfiction book, “On Fire,” he described how, when he had trouble sleeping at the fire station, he would stay up to read and write while the other firefighters slept.
By his own account, Brown wrote five unpublished novels, including one about a man-eating bear loose in Yellowstone Park. He was, of course, full of hope when he mailed them off to publishers. Rejected, all five came back quickly. At the same time he wrote and submitted countless short stories. These, too, came winging back.
Finally, he sent off a story that didn’t come back. It appeared in the June 1982 issue “Easy Riders,” a motorcycle magazine known for its covers featuring scantily clad women. When Brown’s proud mother went to the Oxford book store to buy a copy, the clerk was reluctant to sell it to her. He said: “Mrs. Brown, you’re a lady. Why are you buying a magazine like this?” Her response isn’t recorded, but presumably she simply told him she was determined to have a copy of her son’s story.
Brown’s first story, “Plant Growin’ Problems,” was a comic account of a marijuana-farming motorcyclist’s fateful run-in with a crooked sheriff. Appropriately, the story is the first in the new collection.
His first books were two collections of short stories: “Facing the Music” (1988) and “Big Bad Love” (1990). The new collection includes all the stories from those two books, along with several previously uncollected stories. They’re arranged more-or-less in the order they were written, enabling the reader to trace Brown’s evolution as a writer.
Like the marijuana farmer in Brown’s first published story, most of the men in Brown’s stories drink too much, smoke too much and are too easily caught up in bar-room brawls or other violent behavior. They lead quiet — and sometimes not-so-quiet — lives of Budweiser-soaked desperation. The women in most of his stories are little more than bit players.
These are not the kind of men you’d like to have move in next door to you. Ask them what kind of work they do, they’re apt to tell you they’re “between jobs,” when in fact they’ve not held down a steady job in years.
Those who do work are generally trapped in meaningless dead-end jobs, like Tiny in the collection’s title story, “Tiny Love,” who spends endless hours tending a giant metal-stamping press. Tiny is always careful to place his hands in a safe place as he carefully feeds the metal into the press — and then one day he isn’t.
In Brown’s “Waiting for the Ladies,” a pervert exposes himself to a woman taking out the garbage and her husband, shotgun ready, spends months tracking the man down. And then he finds him.
And then there’s the guy who goes out his front door one morning and sees his dog, dead in the yard. Rather than getting a shovel to bury the dog, he heads for a bar where he knows he can get an early-morning beer. He spends all day drinking and worrying, not about the dog but about how to talk his wife into a divorce. He needn’t have worried. When he finally staggers home, he finds she’s left a farewell note on the kitchen table.
Make no mistake about it, Brown’s stories aren’t recommended for readers easily offended by profanity, bloody violence or no-holds-barred sex.
Nevertheless, there’s a gritty fascination to them.