Larry Brown was 31 years old when he sold his first story to the Easyriders biker magazine. He never went to college, opting for a 2-year tour in the Marines instead. Odd jobs, with the longest stint being with the Fire Dept. in his hometown of Oxford, Mississippi, was his career journey before turning to writing full-time in 1990. Unfortunately, there was only a quarter of his life left to do so. 5 novels—Joe being the 2nd—two short story collections, an autobiography and essays are his published, “Grit Lit” legacy; a remarkably short span to produce such literary work for his admirers and would-be fans.
Joe begins with two narrative flows that cross half-way through the book. The real marrow, however, are the distinguishments wrapping the anti-social behavior of its characters. Their arcs will splinter off the ostensible mannerisms of these so-called backwoods yokels embedded in poverty—you know, alcoholism, larceny, violence, and sloth—against the egregious actions dispensed by just outright evil.
We are a nation of observers drawing opinions from vastly-inadequate sound bytes and 5 minute wrap-ups on the social or news media presented to us. We form biases or add to held formulations, and, no matter how much we mouth absolutes like freedom, equality, or fraternity, if we co-mingle our lexicon with words like “cracker”, “hillbilly”, “redneck”, we unwittingly deny the tribal flaw of humanity's sustenance: cooperation. We create the scapegoat, the enemy, the outsider.
A lesser writer would think this enough of a theme, but author Brown has shrugged his shoulders at the inevitability of simple prejudice and gone after a bigger fish: misanthropy.
Joe Ransom knows the price of a dubious life because he has paid for it. Close to fifty, he's alone with a mean dog and a beater pickup truck. He's alienated from his wife and children and has already done time for assault and battery. Lonely and depressed, when he's not running a crew of washouts “deadnin trees”(Algonquin, 0945575610, 345 pages, p.114) for Weyerhaeuser, he's following the three rules of loserdom: “Fuck. Drink. Gamble”(p.201). Anotherwords, whores, illegal crap games, and chugging lots of booze while driving. He is disliked by as many people who like him, and, he has a reputation of going toe-to-toe with anyone who hinders his chosen bearing.
Wade Jones has made his life from the three C's: cheating, conniving, and crooking. Like Joe, he's on the backslide of his years, but has held his family together with sheer brutality and constant bullying. Leading his wife, son, and 2 daughters back to his childhood romp in Mississippi, he beds them in an abandoned log cabin full of dirt and wasps, then begins scrounging cans along the roads for booze money. He's teaching them the lifestyle of destitution, chicanery, and alcohol abuse. And there's nothing he won't do for a greasy dollar and a mouthful of rotgut. He is “a giddy putrefaction of something gone far past bad”(p.141)
Wade's boy, Gary, thinks he's about 15 years old. Illiterate, he's never signed his own name to anything, nor has he ever brushed his teeth. But he is not following his father's iniquities. He sees hope working within a stable community. Joining Joe's tangle of tree poisoners is the start of his self-styled redemption(1), and rebellion from Wade's heinous influence.
These three men's representations drive the plot, with Gary 's nascent value system as the prize. Wade's journey will be curtailed, but only when a man who knows the destruction within himself is willing to pull the trigger. Joe will always put pride ahead of the law, and it will cost him what he cherishes the most. Gary ? Well, he's learned about honesty and self-reliance, and that atrocity is first glimpsed when you abuse your loved ones, your family.