August 22, 2000
by Kay Kimbrough
Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 2000, $24.95.
Larry Brown's FAY is written in the precise and elegant style that makes all his work such a pleasure to read, but this novel offers an additional pleasure. FAY is a thriller, a book to be read as quickly as possible, difficult to put down.
Fay herself provides a powerful attraction, for she is a fugitive from an abusive and predatory father, a life of extreme poverty and isolation in the hills of North Mississippi, and total ignorance of the world outside what she has learned from her family, the Jones of Brown's JOE. From her brother Gary she has learned compassion and love but from her father she has learned how to survive, how to fight and how to run.
Fay leaves her hill country home in 1985 and starts walking to Biloxi, only because she has heard the name and thinks it is on the coast and will be warm in winter. Her ignorance of the world gives the characters and places she sees a clarity and focus that make Oxford and Sardis Lake and the Mississippi Gulf Coast and Gulf Shores, Alabama, as vivid as they would be in a film, but Fay's pleasure in such simple everyday experiences as eating a hamburger or taking a bath or sleeping in a clean, comfortable bed make her impressions even more powerful.
Other characters enter the story, but Fay remains the focus. What keeps the pages turning are the burning questions of what is going to happen to Fay now or what is Fay going to do next. Fay's first adventure involves a desperate dog caught in a trap that has nearly severed his foot. She escapes the dog by entering a church, a place of peace, safety and sustenance, for she finds a fine meal in the church's kitchen and helps herself to casserole, fried chicken and ham. She looks at paintings of Jesus when she goes back to the sanctuary and thinks that he would not mind her taking the food but places one of her two dollars in one of "the bowls of polished metal" on the altar table. She would like to stay in the church, but "she was still too close to the place she had left."
From this point on Fay encounters danger, first in the form of a trio of boys who pick her up and take her to a trailer inhabited by a tough woman named Linda and a nameless baby that Fay wishes were hers, so she could keep it from falling down and hurting itself. Linda refers to her baby as "it," and Fay remembers her father exchanging her baby brother for a car, a reference to JOE.
Fay escapes, and her next encounter is with Sam, a state trooper, who takes her home to his wife Amy. Amy and Sam have lost a daughter, an only child, and Fay appears to have landed in a heaven on earth, with safety, comfort, love, food and perfect parents who want her to take the daughter's place. Sam and Amy have lives more complicated than their lake house and their gentleness with each other would suggest; they have not found paradise in their ideal setting.
Fay's involvement with Sam and Amy results in another flight, another escape, and she heads south once again. This time she lands in hell on earth, the Biloxi of strip joints, where the girls are quite simply slaves, and drug deals and violence. The plot thickens, and Brown brings the action to a dramatic ending worthy of Greek drama.
Fay is Eve, inexperienced, naive, and vulnerable. She is the catalyst for all the action, but she is not a victimizer or the cause of the troubles of the men she encounters. They are simply caught in a trap, like the dog she meets near the church at the novel's beginning. The trap they cannot escape is the trap of their human passions and weaknesses.
The opening of the novel suggests another inspiration for Fay, Faulkner's Sutpen of ABSALOM, ABSALOM, who was inspired by Milton's Satan. Sutpen begins to lose his innocence when he leaves the mountains and arrives in the plantation region of Virginia. He comes down from the mountain and begins to create his own hell on earth. Brown begins: "She came down out of the hills that were growing black with night, and in the dusty road her feet found small broken stones that make her wince." The suggestion is ironic; Sutpen betrays his son while Fay has been betrayed by her father. She seeks warmth and safety while Sutpen seeks wealth and power. What she eventually finds will be left to the reader's imagination or to a sequel to FAY.
FAY seems to be a turning point for Brown, a move towards clarity and simplicity. In focusing narrowly on one character, he says more, and says it with amazing power.