Joe by Larry Brown

Joe by Larry Brown. (1991) Translated by Lili Sztajn.

Brown_JoeJoe Ramson is an ex-convict, ex-husband, ex-father but not an ex-alcoholic. He’s in his forties, lives with his dog and makes a living as a contractor for a forest company. He hires day laborers, equips them with poison and lets them lose in a section of the forest to poison the trees to make them die. The company that owns the land wants to destroy the old forest to plant new species more apt for industrial exploitation. Joe’s job is to get it done in time. Joe has a routine, mostly to avoid feeling. Drive around in his truck to pick up workers. Drop them at the store to buy breakfast before work. Manage the working team. Pay them. Sip beers all day long. Go grocery shopping for a friend. Catch a glimpse of Charlotte. He goes by, reaching numbness with alcohol. He’s only sure of one thing: he doesn’t want to go to jail again.

Gary Jones may be fifteen. He doesn’t know exactly because his birth was never registered. His parents are bums. They live from hand to mouth. The father Wade is a nasty bastard and the mother is a wreck because she never recovered from losing her son Calvin. Two daughters are with them, Fay who’s older than Gary and little Dorothy who stopped speaking one day and nobody knows why. When they arrive in the neighborhood, they settle in an abandoned house infested of rat droppings and inhabited by wasps. Wade makes the family walk along the roadside to pick up cans to recycle. They do odd jobs and Wade barely buys groceries and drinks the rest of the money. And he’s a nasty drunk. The Jones are out of society by Wade’s doing. He has a shady past and he spent his life bumming around with wife and kids in tow. This Neanderthal doesn’t have a lot of consideration for his wife; he likes her barefoot and pregnant but without the proverbial kitchen.

Gary and Wade work for Joe in the forest although the old man is too lazy to work at the required pace. Joe sees Wade for what he is and fires them. He will take pity on Gary and rehire him later. Gary is on survival mode but he still has goals. Step one: buy Joe’s truck to find work. Step two: find work. Step three: put food on the table. He’s never been to school and he’s still innocent despite his rough life.

The novel is set in rural Mississippi, at the same time it was written, I assume. However, the opening reminded me of The Grapes of Wrath.

The road lay long and black ahead of them and the heat was coming now through the thin soles of their shoes. There were young beans pushing up from the dry brown fields, tiny rows of green sprigs that stretched away in the distance. They trudged on beneath the burning sun, but anyone watching could have seen that they were almost beaten. They passed over a bridge spanning a creek that held no water as their feet sounded weak drumbeats, erratic and small in the silence that surrounded them. No cars passed these potential hitchhikers. The few rotting houses perched on the hillsides of snarled vegetation were broken-backed and listing, discarded dwellings where dwelled only field mice and owls. It was as if no one lived in this land or ever would again, but they could see a red tractor toiling in a field far off, silently, a small dust cloud following.

Larry Brown’s style is powerful and he excels at describing this part of Mississippi. Joe or Gary spend a lot of time on the country roads, in the woods, by the river. Nature is both giving and threatening with dangerous snakes lurking around. Joe feels a little guilty to destroy these trees. Brown describes the heat and the rain with acute precision. The men sweat at work. The heat makes them thirsty and they don’t to rush to mineral water. Larry Brown was born and lived in Mississippi himself. He did odd jobs for years before a publisher noticed his short-stories.That explains why his description of the landscape and these workers rings so true.

Joe_filmThere’s no real plot in Joe, in a sense of reading a story from the beginning to an ending. Joe is a book that reminded of the film Rosetta by the brothers Dardennes. And indeed, Joe has been made into a film by David Gordon Green, with Nicolas Cage playing Joe. I think it’s a great choice of actor. Joe is very cinematographic, the reader has the same view as a camera that would alternatively follow Joe, Gary or both when they’re together. We spend a lot of time in the truck, walking on the roadside or buying food and beverages at the local grocery store. The novel is a slice of lives; we see the characters during a few weeks of their lives.

All along we see lives broken by war, alcohol abuse, and untimely pregnancies. Charlotte divorced Joe to escape a fatal spiral of alcohol and poverty. When the man drinks all the money, what’s left for the wife to buy food and clothes for the kids? Wade has always been violent. He’s a mean drunk and sober, he’s even meaner. He’s conniving as an addict can be: he will do anything to get his dose of booze. He’s selfish to the core, devoid of feeling for any fellow human being, even his kids.

Gary comes from a miserable background and the reader wonders what will become of him. He’s never been to school. He doesn’t know some basic things necessary to survive in society but he’s not stupid and he’s trying. Joe shows an awful side of America but it could be in any country. After all, homelessness is everywhere.

Joe left me puzzled. I found it bleak, Beside-the-sea bleak with a tiny ray of hope. I didn’t understand where Brown was going. Maybe he wasn’t going anywhere, just using reportage techniques in literature. Reading Joe felt like watching a documentary about that little corner of Mississippi with a focus on Joe and Gary.

Would I recommend this book? It’s hard to say yes because of the absence of a plot. And I prefer my books with a plot. At the same time, it’s hard to say no because Larry Brown was truly talented. His descriptions of the countryside are stunning and you can’t help feeling something for Joe and Gary. Joe works hard to maintain his image of a cold bastard while he longs for his ex-wife and is soft hearted enough to help Gary out. And Gary carries the misery of the world on his shoulders. With such parents, it’s a miracle he’s so put together.

So yes, I liked Joe but I was a bit frustrated by the approach. It’s Ken Loach without the British sense of humor. I missed the sense of humor.

  1. April 4, 2015 at 5:25 pm

    so is Larry Brown’s novel Fay about the same Fay you mentioned?
    I tried watching the film version of this and couldn’t make it through, so I don’t know about reading the book. Sometimes that touch of humour makes all the difference…


    • April 4, 2015 at 5:34 pm

      Yes, I’ve read it’s the same Fay.
      Why did you stop watching the film?


      • April 4, 2015 at 5:41 pm

        Just so bleak…


        • April 4, 2015 at 5:42 pm

          My sentiment about the book, as you know.


          • April 4, 2015 at 5:43 pm

            Yes, at times it’s just not the right moment to immerse oneself in bleakness


            • April 4, 2015 at 5:46 pm

              That’s true, that’s why difficult books on an emotional level stay longer on the TBR shelf.


  2. April 4, 2015 at 5:34 pm

    Great commentary Emma.

    The lack of plot would not bother me. However it sounds as if you struggled to find some underlying meaning here. Not finding that would vex me as a reader.

    It does sound grim.


    • April 4, 2015 at 5:49 pm

      I think you nailed it Brian. It’s probably more the lack of apparent purpose or meaning than the absence of a defined plot that bothered me.


  3. April 5, 2015 at 8:53 am

    I saw the film at the cinema. It is bleak, but I made it to the end as the performances are very good: Cage as Joe and Tye Sheridan as Gary. (I’m not a huge fan of Nicolas Cage’s recent films, but he’s good here.) I guess Joe acts as a sort of father figure for Gary in the absence of any real support from Wade.


    • April 6, 2015 at 5:39 pm

      Joe wasn’t exactly a father figure although he cared about Gary. He doesn’t behave like a father or maybe it’s what he imagines a father should do.


  4. April 8, 2015 at 3:52 pm

    Too be bleak for me but I liked your review. I might watch the movies as I tend to do better with bleak movies than books.


    • April 8, 2015 at 9:59 pm

      It was really bleak but the style is wonderful. You can picture Mississippi very well. It’s as bleak as Marilyn Robinson’s Housekeeping. That one gave me the creeps too. All this humidity, this depressing family. Like we say in French “il n’y en avait pas un pour rattraper l’autre” (I have no idea of how to say that in English)


  5. April 13, 2015 at 4:19 pm

    Beside the Sea bleak? Bloody hell, that’s weapons-grade bleakness, a novel you could drop on an enemy army to demoralise them. I don’t mind plotless books and it sounds very good, but it’s not where I am right now. Nicely captured though as ever Emma.


    • April 14, 2015 at 7:51 pm

      That made me laugh. I knew someone would react to the Beside the Sea comparison.
      I felt the same for Gary as for the children in Olmi’s book: helpless & bothered that they escaped the social system and didn’t get the help they needed.


  1. October 14, 2020 at 2:00 pm

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