One of the most telling parts of Larry Brown's new book Billy Ray's Farm comes in an essay called Goat Songs, when the author confuses a fictional story by William Faulkner with a true incident, related to him by his father, about the slaughtering of a goat in the 1930s. It's as though, in Brown's consciousness, fiction and reality, family and history got churned together, as though there were no division between Faulkner's Mississippi and his own. This sort of interconnectedness of shared experience and triggered memories, of the unique inheritance that comes from being raised in a particular place lies at the heart of Billy Ray's Farm. In these 10 essays, Brown writes about his apprenticeship as an author and about life on the family farm in Tula, Mississippi, where his son, Billy Ray, raises cattle. His voice and syntax in this volume are by turns lyrical, forceful and downright unruly ( the goat got gone; I don't reckon bad luck ever takes a vacation. ) Unromantic, unembellished, full of humor, honesty and wisdom, the essays themselves are the stories of a man bound to the land on which he lives. The everyday activities in which Brown engages in Tula writing something or building something or cutting something down and dragging it somewhere are, needless to say, not all genteel.
Through- out the book, Brown makes no bones about his gritty, hands-on existence, and the end effect is a tone of raw authenticity that endears the writer to his audience. In a trio of wonderful essays Billy Ray's Farm, Goat Songs and Shack, all of which deal with farm life, with the vicissitudes and brutality of nature Brown seems to delight in defying the writerly stereotype, the polite image of an author as a helpless intellectual lacking in practical skills. In The Whore in Me, a brief, humorous account of a book tour, he appears to be more interested in a gun show taking place in the convention center where he is reading than in literary affairs. An author without airs whose work is as unflinching as nature itself, Brown is what he is, and for that the reader is grateful.
Of the critical link between geography and writing, he says, You take what you're given, whether it's the cornfields of the Midwest or the coal mines of West Virginia, and you make your fiction out of it. It's all you have. And somehow, wherever you are, it always seems to be enough. In Larry Brown's case, it most certainly is.