Fay by Larry Brown

Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill 2000 510 pp. 24.95

Copyright © Steven E. Alford


Emerging on foot from the bleak woods outside Oxford, Mississippi, Fay Jones isn't going anywhere in particular, just away from her brutal, abusive, drunken father. Armed with a fifth-grade education, virtually no experience of ordinary life outside of sharecropping, and a body that would stop a clock, this seventeen-year-old is primed to change some men's lives. For the worse. Much worse.

Stepping out of the pages of Larry Brown's earlier, much-praised novel, Joe , Fay seems like an accident waiting to happen. And indeed, much of this novel reads like a slow-motion car wreck, both literally and figuratively. However, the suffering the victims of Fay's sexuality endure results not from their moral defectiveness, but in trying to express the best in them: trying to love Fay is an unexpected ticket to violence and self-destruction.

Sam Harris, a cop, discovers her walking along a roadside near Batesville, tattered and hungry. He takes her to his home at Cole's Point, introducing her to his wife, Amy. A few years earlier, Sam and Amy had lost their daughter in a car wreck, and Sam hoped that Fay would somehow bring them back together from their sad estrangement.

"With Sam and Amy, the days grew in number and after a while it began to seem that she had never had any life but this one of friendship, good food and a nice bed to sleep in at night."

Over time, however, Fay becomes an unanticipated rope in a tug-of-war between the couple, each seeking her attention and affection. Amy's drinking, combined with Sam's infidelity with another woman, add complications to Fay's presence in the house, culminating in multiple violent events that send Fay down the road to Biloxi.

On the coast Fay meets Reena, a waitress and local stripper, and the strip club's bouncer, the huge, silent, and imposing Aaron. Soon Fay finds herself enmeshed in a series of relationships that draw her into the frightening, but protective orbit of Aaron. We learn that, inevitably, the paths of Sam and Aaron must cross, as they seek to control Fay and have her for their own.

Narratively, this is dangerous territory: in the hands of a less-skilled writer, Fay could come across as a white trash Lolita and mere sexual object or an annoying wise-beyond-her-years sexpot. Brown expertly realizes her, and the men in her life, as believable characters with emotional stakes that we can identify with and understand.

Although this novel is rooted like kudzu in the Mississippi soil, its heroine harkens back to none other than Lulu, the character immortalized by Louise Brooks in G. W. Pabst's 1928 masterpiece, Pandora's Box . Both the film and Brown's novel feature a woman whose naïve yet knowing sexuality is simply irresistible to those around her.

The glacially deliberative pacing may annoy some readers, who might consider that, at 517 pages, the novel could have spent some time in an editorial aerobics class. Others will find the slowly moving narrative ominous in the manner of a classical tragedy.

What is undeniable is that Larry Brown writes about what he knows, and that knowledge renders his prose absolutely convincing. The desolate world of his characters, an endless sequence of beers and cigarettes, punctuated by the inevitable gunshot, is a grim reminder that for many, love and the search for it yields only despair and death. Classically tragic in its vision, Brown's haunting novel will send the reader seeking his other works, not for amusement, but for a glimpse into a world that is made true in the telling.