As it is in Larry Brown's fiction, so be it in Larry Brown's nonfiction: straight up. Language: straightforward; method: straight-shooting. He's made that way his way in short stories and novels, in one work of nonfiction (On Fire), and again in nonfiction, now, in Billy Ray's Farm (Algonquin), a new selection of previously published magazine articles, plus a closing essay titled super-economically "Shack."
That "shack," like the author's writing, is simply put: a set of walls and roof Brown built with his own hands on his own land in Tula, Mississippi, where, if he wishes, he can watch the rain come down, maybe step outside and fish, maybe strum a guitar. Maybe write? Sometime, perhaps, when the tiny building is finally finished and when, as he describes elsewhere in these pages, he is: not on a book tour, not at the Enid Spillway "fish grab," not at Proud Larry's in Oxford, not aiming at coyotes, not rescuing goats, not wrestling with a "calfpuller" and mother heifer and unborn calf, and not remembering the kindnesses shown to him by personal hero Harry Crews and an unsung hero praised nonetheless by Flannery O'Connor, Madison Jones.
Brown met Jones in 1989. The occasion: Brown's first literary conference. And it's an occasion in Billy Ray's Farm for Brown to state explicitly what Jones succeeded in doing and what Brown, implicitly, hopes himself to achieve in fiction: "a relentless forward drive of narrative"; "the ordinary things of life [witnessed] with great clarity, [the] weather and seasons and the land that lies around the characters"; "people ... caught up in the events around them and swept forward ... to the point where drastic actions can result." In short, fiction populated by "people breathing and moving and acting on their own, as if this story was simply found somewhere, fully formed." Better put, shorter still: to make something that "makes you forget that you're reading."
Needing, however, more than a cow's prolapsed uterus in the way of "drastic action"? Conflict both internal and external, on a grand scale? People caught up in events and swept forward, even unto certain death? Something nowhere near the "ordinary" but "things," the weather, the seasons, the land around people so caught, witnessed with great clarity? Anthony Loyd's My War Gone By, I Miss It So (in paperback from Penguin) may be a story the author found fully formed when he first set foot in Sarajevo in 1993, but you'll in no way forget you're reading. You may in fact feel the urge to stop reading and throw up once inside this eyewitness reporter's heroin-fed brain and inside his depiction of contemporary warfare, Balkans-style and centuries in the making.
That this author is still alive isn't a matter of luck, it's a matter of miracle. When he isn't shooting up on return trips to London, he's shooting (as cameraman) any number of atrocities and being shot at (as sitting duck) by any number of sides responsible for those atrocities in war-torn Bosnia.
Loyd's employer was The Times of London, but Loyd's outlook isn't a seasoned newspaperman's cool detachment. He knowingly, repeatedly, recklessly, suicidally (?) plants himself where the going gets tough and the tough (including innocents) get ... what? In the way. Of bullets and bayonets and worse. Those bullets and bayonets, backed by bloodthirsty commanders backed by competing, insane nationalisms, this book does something to explain but in no way explains away. Better, as in the case of a kitten making off with a man's spilled brains or as in the sight of a disoriented crone wielding a man's severed leg, you, like Loyd, cast your feelings in the bin marked "horrible" and wait "until the night's darkness paroles them into your dreams." That a self-professed fuck-up as major as Anthony Loyd could pull himself together and graduate to writing this good must say something about A) the educational might of England or B) the survivor instinct inbred in Loyd from a host of military forefathers. The result either way: a dispatch from the nightmare also known as front-page news.
An altogether different, private, bloodless nightmare presents itself the second you so much as read a word of Roberto Calasso's Literature and the Gods (Knopf), the private portion being the realization, despite education and reading, you don't know squat. The least but immediate of the book's virtues? It's short. Meaning: a complete reread isn't an option, it's a given. The topic: nothing less than the foundation of Literature itself, with a capital L; man's perception of the gods as real entities, interceding, wrecking, inspiring earthly affairs and stretching back to archaic Greece and antique Rome; the much earlier source of that interplay, the early Vedic verses and ritual practices of India; and the revolutionary reworking of individual consciousness that took place in 19th-century Germany and France, according to avant-garde theories of artistic creation, the very well-spring of modernism. Course requirements: a working knowledge (preferably in the original but translations, for wimps, provided) of Baudelaire, Heine, Hölderlin, Lautréamont, Mallarmé, Nabokov, Nietzsche, and Novalis, and never will you feel stupider than you will reading this book. Dig out from college your thinking cap and forget about forgetting you're reading.