As it is in Larry Browns fiction, so be it in Larry Browns nonfiction: straight up. Language: straightforward; method: straight-shooting. Hes made that way his way in short stories and novels, in one work of nonfiction (On Fire), and again in nonfiction, now, in Billy Rays Farm (Algonquin), a new selection of previously published magazine articles, plus a closing essay titled super-economically Shack.
That shack, like the authors 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 Larrys 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 OConnor, Madison Jones.
Brown met Jones in 1989. The occasion: Browns first literary conference. And its an occasion in Billy Rays 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 youre reading.
Needing, however, more than a cows 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 Loyds 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 youll in no way forget youre reading. You may in fact feel the urge to stop reading and throw up once inside this eyewitness reporters heroin-fed brain and inside his depiction of contemporary warfare, Balkans-style and centuries in the making.
That this author is still alive isnt a matter of luck, its a matter of miracle. When he isnt shooting up on return trips to London, hes 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.
Loyds employer was The Times of London, but Loyds outlook isnt a seasoned newspapermans 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 mans spilled brains or as in the sight of a disoriented crone wielding a mans severed leg, you, like Loyd, cast your feelings in the bin marked horrible and wait until the nights 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 Calassos Literature and the Gods (Knopf), the private portion being the realization, despite education and reading, you dont know squat. The least but immediate of the books virtues? Its short. Meaning: a complete reread isnt an option, its a given. The topic: nothing less than the foundation of Literature itself, with a capital L; mans 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, Helderlin, Lautreamont, Mallarme, 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 youre reading.