cover image Fay


Larry Brown. Free Press, $24.95 (487pp) ISBN 978-1-56512-168-3

The South of Larry Brown (Dirty Work) is a country devoid of genteel manners and magnolia trees. His deeply flawed characters generally lack money, education and a fair chance at the pursuit of happiness, yet he portrays them square-on, with a restrained compassion that neither panders to nor patronizes their struggling, often violent lives. This saga of degradation and violence is his most powerful novel yet. It is the coming-of-age story of a young woman whose downward trajectory seems fated, despite the glimmers of luck that she hopes are her salvation. Fay Jones is 17 years old when she runs away from her sexually abusive father and the poor white family shack outside of Oxford, Miss. Dangerously innocent and naive about the world (she has never used a telephone or left a tip in a restaurant), she is stoic, resourceful and desperate to better herself. Like everyone else in this novel, she is addicted to beer and cigarettes; whiskey and dope will come later. And she is beautiful, which is both the source of opportunity and the limit of her aspirations. It seems almost too good to be true when trooper Sam Harris rescues Fay and takes her to his lakeside home. His wife, Amy, still grieving over the death of their teenage daughter, takes Fay under her wing. But Amy is an alcoholic, and in one of the car crashes that punctuate the novel--all caused by drunken drivers--she is killed. Though he is already involved with a predatory mistress, Sam falls in love with Fay and she with him; when Fay becomes pregnant; she has a brief vision of a safe and settled life. The cycle of events that ensue--a murder in self-defense, Fay's flight to Biloxi, sexual exploitation, several premeditated killings--are, in the force field of this story, inevitable and preordained. All his characters, including the decent, anguished Sam (who is heroic in his police work) and bewildered, frightened Fay, behave foolishly, rashly and badly. Yet Brown's laconic narrative is constructed on a merciful understanding of his characters' limitations. Though he takes a long time to get the plot under way, describing such mundane activities as fishing and police patrols in the detail necessary to make them clear, the narrative acquires tension and velocity and by the end the reader is mesmerized, waiting for a gun to go off, but praying for a miracle. There are no miracles, of course, but the raw power of this novel, the clear, graphic accounts of both humble and perverted lives (in the bars and strip joints of Biloxi), is a triumph of realism and a humane imagination. (Feb.)