Larry Brown, Father and Son. Chapel Hill: Algonquin. 360 pages. There’s a Kindle version but the cover art of the print book is too well-done to do without.
I came to Larry Brown via Susan Ketchin’s wonderful anthology, The Christ-Haunted Landscape: Faith and Doubt in Southern Fiction. Brown’s addition was the most visceral in the collection, with an horror-freakshow quality that dared a reader to pursue the author further. In addition to the danger of damnation, the possibility that salvation might be something wholly more dreadful loomed as large as it ever did in O’Connor.
That damnation and salvation hits the main character of Father and Son, Glen Davis, with exceptional force. Glen gets out of prison in the novel’s opening chapters, carrying grudges that scorch his heart. He returns to a town that whispers about him, a sheriff that antagonizes him, a home full of dark memories, a beloved he will not give himself to, and a child he cannot stand to look at. Each of these characters get their turn in the narrative, fleshing out Glen’s past, including the dark history among them. The deft way Brown handles the exposition of small-town secrets is one of the novel’s strengths. When Sheriff Blanchard discusses something with Jewel, Glen’s lover, we do not get details or some reveal but the honest, gut-wrenching weight of those revelations on the characters. It’s bewildering, forcing us to meet these people and not simply anticipate their stories.
Before we get to any of those stories, however, the opening chapters of the novel strike like the lightning that barely misses Sheriff Blanchard later in the novel. The first fifty pages are jaw-droppingly well structured; they plunge us without warning into Glen’s violent, rage-filled world. Brown is one of those writers I don’t quite feel I can trust, like McCarthy; what I mean is that any awful thing can (and probably will) happen at any time. After his initial burst, Glen smolders through the rest of the novel, always on the verge of another explosion. What heightens the tension is a narrative irony that none of the other characters seem to know, or believe, exactly what he is capable of.
Here, then, is the novel’s engagement with the grand theme of evil at humanity’s heart. It is a theme that police procedurals, historical-reimagining films, and bloody, dirty video games have fairly oversaturated, insisting on more grit, more realism, until the viewer might as well be shaking the killer by the shoulders, demanding to know why he did it. Perhaps the question was more stirring in 1996, when Father and Son hit bookstores. Although the narrative gives very credible (if predictable) reasons for Glen’s rage, I found myself not asking why he did the things he did–but how did the people around him live with it? Is Glen’s father simply blind to what his son has become? Why didn’t Jewel start out buying a gun (or at least adopting a big dog?) Currently, the debate around mass shootings echoes this conflict: how do we live knowing that evil lives there in town with us, is intimately connected to us? More guns, perhaps, along with attendant vigilance? Or is it just as evil to let evil change the normal pace and shape of life?
Or the deepest, hardest question, which O’Connor knew well and Brown may have his doubts about: if violent evil comes from pain, can we heal it and how?
As for Glen, the spirit of O’Connor’s Misfit hangs over his damnation and salvation, in more ways than one. The reader is left hoping for authorial mercy both for and from Glen, hanging in masterfully crafted tension until the final chapter.