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Father and Son
Larry Brown

Father and Son
Larry Brown
London 1998

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Judge this book by its cover and you might expect to be in for one of those rare reads which stay with you to the grave. But unless the commuter train you happen to be reading it on is involved in an unfortunate accident, this is unlikely to be the case. Not because Father and Son is a poor book – in many ways it is quite the reverse – but because the publishers have done it a disservice with an over-hyped jacket blurb and more than the usual number of carefully spliced together cover quotes. Before reaching the opening paragraph, Larry Brown, an author new to me, is elevated to the lofty status of Dostoevsky and William Faulkner. Although this gives a fairly accurate hint of the literary flavours to expect, it also sets the book up for a fall if the end result is anything other than exceptional. That it is merely good inevitably, and undeservedly, comes as something of a disappointment.

Which is a shame because Father and Son does have a timeless quality about it and Brown eloquently evokes all the old themes of literature in a smouldering tale of passion, hatred, vengeance and redemption. The small town setting of a Mississippi backwater is not unfamiliar territory: a blue-collar place where not much ever happens, where folk drink beer, go huntin’ and fishin’, mind each other’s business, and pay habitual visits to church on Sundays. But behind the balmy days and monster catfish, Brown portrays a decaying landscape of derelict cars, broken beer bottles, dried-up wells, and damaged people.

The tale opens as storm clouds gather with the arrival of Glen Davis, a man with trouble in mind and old scores to settle. Freshly released from jail after serving 3 years for manslaughter, he returns home a bitter man with old wrongs, both real and imagined, to right. Hitting town like an angry whirlwind, he leaves a trail of destruction in his wake, murdering an old adversary and an innocent bystander within 24 hours of release. And that’s just for openers.

Set against the volatile Glen is the mild mannered town sheriff, Bobby, who has reasons of his own for harbouring a grudge against Glen. He is in love with Glen’s sweetheart who has stood faithfully by her wayward man during his stay in jail. To complicate matters further, Glen’s alcoholic father holds a flame for the sheriff’s mother, who Glen blames for his own mother’s suicide while he was away in prison. But there are much deeper, unacknowledged reasons for the enmity between the two men.

Father and Son is firmly in the tradition of a classic Western, complete with a villain who initially is not entirely beyond redemption, an upstanding town sheriff, a homely girl they are competing for, and a gnarled and grizzled old timer worn down by the burden of his past. If there is a flaw it’s that Larry Brown plays the classical themes so straight that it is difficult to shake the feeling that you have read it all somewhere before.

Reviewed by Jon Mitchell


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