Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Chapter 1. "Bad Low: On Larry Brown and Billy Childish."


“The evening gloam was upon us. It was gloaming time. We would be Gloamriders in the Sky. He shut off the motor and got out a beer, stuck his arm back in and turned off the lights.”
-“Big Bad Love” Larry Brown, 1990.

It’s getting too late at night. It’s thundering, and not modestly. I have leaks in my ceilings and am expecting a waterfall in the living room as tonight’s summer storm has finally moved here to the Highlands. The heat these past two days doesn’t seem real but just barks and swallows you if you try to move in it.  The forecast doesn’t seem to see the oven air outside letting up. They were saying this Kentucky summer might be lessened with the downpours we had all spring, but that hasn’t turned out to be the case. Every day it’s advised you stay indoors or you’ll apparently die from exposure. The index was up near 112 today and expected to rise throughout the week. I’ve twisted the top off a Pabst despite the fact I need to get out of bed early and work a full day, at least. My taxidermied deer head fell off the door. Hopefully lightning won’t strike the house like it did six or seven years ago and fry this machine.
Seems like a good night to write about Larry Brown.

Although the lightning is getting pretty close.

I was first exposed to Larry Brown in 2002. Unfortunately, but neigh fortunately, I found him through the film “Big Bad Love” starring Arliss Howard and Debra Winger, directed by Howard, produced by Winger. A labor of love that really seemed to capture little attention, it was based on the stories and characters of Larry Brown’s work, especially the short “92 Days.”

[pause: I had to save and shut down ‘fore the lightning got too close. The sky was a disco ball and my living room ceiling led to my new swimming pool in the front half of the apartment. I also had to construct a scathing email for the landlord, asking him to politely let me out of the lease. Onward.]

The feel of the film and the ideas of the storylines led me to immediately check out his collection of the same name, “Big Bad Love.” From there, I was addicted, and have been since. Brown seems to be known to some rare readers that when encountered, surprise me. Most of them are addicts like myself, having discovered him through word of mouth. I can’t say seriously that there aren’t authors that don’t hook me like a catfish and splash me into submission like Brown does; but he has been without a doubt the most influential writer on my own prose since first touching the pages. In fact, maybe there hasn’t been an author that has meant as much to me in life. His style of writing can easily be described as gritty and harsh, but to me it brandishes such a realism and unadorned charm it haunts me not for days, and has for over a decade, now. I can’t get his words out of my head. My love for the Victorian era command of English prose has permeated my brain these last eight or so years, smushed with Nabokov’s bizarre English-as-a-second language poetry. And yes, there are others who have take the word and ground it into a real descriptive squash of boot. I mean, writers such as Childish, Bukowski and Kerouac can talk like people and still saw your head in half with their beauty. To me, Brown is the culmination of these artists. He doesn’t strive to be ugly; he paints what he sees and he knows how to use those words to such an effect, it baffles my brain. He writes mean characters that you love and shows hurt as a beauty. I would never say Brown is the only person to do this successfully; but in my book, I mean his books, he is the best at it.

I could gush over his style for pages and pages, but I’m trying to make my first entry for this blog not last seventeen chapters. I’m sure he is someone that I will re-approach here often.   I will spend a moment discussing his final effort, “A Miracle of Catfish.” 

Brown died suddenly in 2004, leaving “A Miracle of Catfish” unfinished. It was posthumously published by Algonquin Books in 2007. It has been described as rambling; to me, it’s mostly genius uncut. There are sections that remind me of his earlier books “The Rabbit Factory” and (my favorite) “Fay.” While HG Wells can systemically describe a scene of two bicyclists crossing the countryside with both poetry and social commentary, or Nabokov can play tricks with words and create a thickened but symmetrical painting of loners in twilight of tempting thought, bleeding every detail down to a perfect viscosity, Brown simply attacks the scenes and delivers straight thought as experienced by the characters. Through his loose reduction of mundane observance, he sinks small refinements of development and story into two pages of starting a tractor or grilling a steak. Maybe it takes having seen or heard or experienced some of his moments to really sink into the place, but I appreciate that dedication and that delivery. That repetition of thought that occurs in us all that creates schisms in the head and leads thoughts to thoughts.

“It didn’t rain. It didn’t rain and it didn’t rain and it didn’t rain and it didn’t rain. It didn’t rain a drop. It would not rain. It refused to rain. It didn’t rain in the morning, didn’t rain at lunch, and it sure as hell didn’t rain in the afternoon or evenings or at night. It didn’t rain at all. And that was just the first week…

Cortez got to going down the road some afternoons in his pickup to see if he could see come places where it rained. He thought maybe it might have rained near Serepta, so he rode down there to see. But it was dry down there, didn’t look like it had rained. He rode over toward Bruce to see if it had rained down there, but it hadn’t, so he turned and rode through Water Valley to see if it had rained there. It hadn’t. It hadn’t rained in Banner. Or Pine Flat. Or Delay. Or Paris. Or Potlockney. Or Spring Hill. Or Toccopola. Or Dogtown. All the roads and trees and grasses and yards and pastures were dry. There any mud puddles out in the cotton fields. He stopped his truck on the bridge over Yocona River to see how low the water was and it was low. Bad low…” (“Miracle,” 42-46)

Brown doesn’t pull back in his characters’ sense of sorting the world out. And none of what I’m bringing up even touches the aspects of the plot, but I am only acknowledging his style of conjuring the plot throughout. I can see the criticisms of rambling, but I believe in the rambling as path to an end. The characters, all of them – Cortez Sharp, Jimmy, Jimmy’s Daddy, Tommy, Lucinda, all of them – think like people who are perched in a swarm of both too much emotion and too much stress from the world’s they have either been born into or have created.  “Miracle” approaches the human spirit like animals figuring the world out one second at a time, and even approaches the animal world closely, much like Brown does in “The Rabbit Factory,” comparing animal thoughts and human thoughts. Like all of Brown’s works, its feeling smashed with life.

“Fish. Why did he think they were the answer? For a long time they had been. Fish were part of the real beauty of the natural world. It was good clean fun to fish. Kids could do it. Anybody could eat it. Even old folks. Some of his fondest memories were of fish fries at Uncle LaVert’s house back when he was a kid. Crisp hush puppies, fried golden brown, and fat cut potatoes that were fried in the same oil, and fish. Mounds of fish: bream, crappie, catfish, all crispy in browned meal, piled high on the plate. Wedges of lemon lying on the side. The cabbage slaw Aunt Addie made and kept in the icebox until time to eat so it would be good and cold.

He wished he could go back to that time and live there again. But that world was gone. He raised his head and looked around. Just like this one was about to be.” (“Miracle” 205)

“Miracle” hurts me. Like writing should hurt and aid. It’s a storm to sit through, and when it’s over, you’re glad and probably wet from the rain. And “Miracle” hurts me on a separate level, being it was Brown’s last work. To read the last thing a living author was writing that you worshipped…it’s a little too much.

So this leads me to Billy Childish. 

There are certain artists that can capture what I think of as The Simple Truths, or just the acute observations of life and render them to bleeding pulp. To wrestle things down the heart.  Larry Brown, obviously, I consider one of these souls. Again, you/I can invoke Bukowski. Hasil Adkins. There are many that can do this. Billy Childish stands on his own mound among them. 

Even if I was never swamped in his music as much as many of my friends, the few bits and pieces I might have heard over the last 15 or 20 years have sunk in so deep that I literally feel like I ripped him off. The rough heart-felt aesthetics he and Hasil and Brown lived/live by are definitely contributions to myself, my writing, my heart. As much as Clint Eastwood/Sergio Leone’s Man With No Name,  Bukowski, Tom Waits, Man or Astroman?,  Coppola/Sheen’s Dillard and scores of others. Although I did not purchase my first Billy Childish vinyl until 2008, it was ingrained and instilled from various sources before and always. Once the Internet made music the way it is, I watched him. From before then I read other people’s books, listened to vinyl at other people’s parties, played and heard his records at the University of Kentucke’s WRFL-FM. When I first heard him in the early to mid90s, he was an artist I felt I did not need to rush into purchasing, because I immediately understood it so well, which is a strange feeling. I feel that way about certain artists, still to this day. My small collections mean as much as their entire catalog, to me.

I was recently lucky enough to perform in a Billy Childish cover band. His sound has an obvious overtone on mine. Fuck tuning; fuck everything but blood on copper strings and singing your soul out. Relearning these songs makes me realize how much I took from them when performing with JT Dockery in the Smacks!. And how much I put myself into what I took.  Being someone who plays music and puts his head into writing, Childish was a master at exactly how I felt to write and how I felt to play that I decided that worshipping him too much would be detrimental to my own identity. His harsh takes on life and love coincide with mine so much, I tend to often avoid him. It’s dropping the bomb and stealing too much of the lightning strike. Looking back, listening, I realize how much that, Jesus, this man burned my head up. There are many artists I can say this about. However, I’ve bought and immersed myself in their output. Childish: I sometimes avoid. He cuts too close. But it’s the same with Larry Brown. It’s odd to read or hear a writer or musician that sometimes speaks for you. And you get intimidated. Especially when they are so goddamn good at it.

Billy Childish and Larry Brown are artists that would probably frown on a blog. Me, I look at it in a paper way: I would be publishing, like I did in the late 1990s, cheap easy chapbooks to express. I prefer the paper way. But I can’t ignore the free cheap easy way to throw this shit out there online. Same principle.  And to hopefully throw others’ out there in some raw connection with other readers.

--Brine 072011.

Brown, Larry. "A Miracle of Catfish." (Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 2007)  

1 comment:

Rev. Robert Michael Freville, Brain Wizard said...

Hey brine, thanks for sharing this. As a mutual fan of brown and the kind of raw musiic typical of artists like billy, I couldn't have conveyed the sensation of reading and hearing their voices any better than you have here, and I've been writing semi-pro for thirteen years, so that's sayin somethin, brother. Would love to read some of your chapbooks. Diggin your flow. have a blessed day, bob freville