"I Wish I Had a Daddy Good as You": Fay and the Rough Sex of Larry Brown


Larry Brown’s novel Fay (2000) represented something of a departure for the Mississippi writer best known for his gritty portrayals of contemporary rural white southern men who drink Budweisers while cruising dirt roads in their pickups, a gun under the seat or in the gun rack, all the while confronting challenges that demand they man up and “face the music,” as one of Brown’s early short stories puts it.1 Most obviously, this novel differs from nearly all of Brown’s earlier work, including the prequel, Joe (1991), in that its protagonist is female. Brown explained that Fay began with his desire to know what happened to Fay Jones after she literally walked out of Joe in the middle of the novel. “It was around 1984 or ’85,” wrote Brown, “that I started writing a long novel about a family of migrant workers who had found themselves in Mississippi. . . . I published that book in 1991, and never did cease wondering what happened to [Fay]. . . . This is her story.”2 However, this decision to structure the novel around a woman hardly meant that Brown had abandoned the basic concerns or altered the moral universe of his earlier masculinist fiction. Indeed, some readers of Brown’s fiction have seen more than realistic consistency across the rough South of Larry Brown. “The author’s scrupulous refusal to judge his whores, batterers, and garden-variety losers,” wrote one reviewer of Fay, “suggests not merely a propensity but a philosophy.”3 Whether propensity or philosophy, the narrative voice and plot of Fay, as in much of Brown’s other fiction, are informed by an intense focus upon physicality , violence, and sex. In the novel Fay, the body of the main character herself, Fay Jones, is a text upon which social, cultural, and other conflicts and story lines are written. The use of the female body--particularly a sexualized body-- as a signifying text in this novel and in Brown’s other work is relatively unexamined , in part because the bodies with which he usually worked were male and the action upon them was violence, whether actual physical violence from 207 Fay and the Rough Sex of Larry Brown another character or violence from a constant use of alcohol, tobacco, and other drugs.4 Thus, while critics are right in noting the physical and emotional harshness of the rough South of Larry Brown, this essay focuses upon the female body as a locus of that violence, sexual or otherwise.5 Further, this essay seeks to demonstrate that the narrative voice, and not merely the action of the plot, works that violence upon Fay. It is not my purpose here to insist that the sexual content of the novel is outré or inappropriate or offensive. Nor do I assert that the novel operates in destructive ways upon readers or southern women. Such an argument would be difficult indeed to support. What is possible, however, is to suggest that the masculinist world of Larry Brown here is built by action upon women’s bodies--not only Fay’s but those of other women in the novel, both primary and minor characters, as well--and that the action is performed both by the narrator and by his male characters. The women are observed, catalogued, penetrated, impregnated, shot, struck, and killed. Such a litany constitutes not merely realism of a naive documentary sort but an esthetic that asserts the body as an establishing, fundamental text. Indeed, the violated body might be said to define Larry Brown’s South in the way that the past might be said to define Faulkner’s work; or grace, O’Connor’s; or the magical and lyrical, Lewis Nordan’s, to take only a few examples of southern writers who work, especially the latter two, with and upon white characters. Brown’s published work deals almost exclusively with the working-class white South, and Brown is attentive to the ways in which social class informs and drives his characters.6 How, specifically, does social class shape the world of Fay Jones? When the 17-year-old beauty abandons her dirt-poor family and her abusive father, she does not neatly climb from or within Brown’s male-dominated world of physical violence, heavy drinking, and tarnished heroism. Her movement, or progress, through the novel is not very concerned with social-class...


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