Book tips from beyond the grave

Recently I revealed my gradual realization that I have been assembling a collection of voices — recordings of authors I have interviewed on the radio. I work with the gifted audiophile Peter Hayes over at Yellow Springs’ public radio station WYSO-FM (91.3). He has been transferring some of my old cassette recordings to more stable storage media.

I have not revisited many of those interviews until now. I had heard what my radio guests were saying to me at the time but I did not have the luxury the radio listener was having in experiencing the interplay of voices. I’m finally listening to some of these conversations.

Writers appearing on the program will provide names of books they admire. I listened to the interview I did 15 years ago with the novelist Kent Haruf, the author of “Plainsong” and other fine works. During our talk Haruf, who died in 2014, revealed the titles of a couple of books he truly loved.

One he mentioned was “Joe” by the late Larry Brown. I had never cracked open one of Brown’s novels, but Haruf’s words from beyond the grave spurred me.

One genre of fiction is called “grit lit.” The late Harry Crews was the master of this dark and violent form. Brown was one of his many admirers. Here’s how he dedicated one novel: “For my uncle in all ways but blood: Harry Crews.”

Published in 1991, “Joe” is the story of Joe Ransom, a middle-aged, blue-collar guy living in the countryside of north Mississippi. Joe drinks too much. He gets in fights. One day he encounters a teenager named Gary Jones. Gary is a sweet kid who is just trying to earn some money to feed his desperate family. Gary’s father is a satanic drunkard. As the story builds the eventual showdown between Joe and Gary’s evil daddy becomes inevitable.

Kent Haruf was right. I loved that book. You can pick up used copies of Larry Brown’s books for mere pennies online. I ordered another. “Fay” (2000) is set in Mississippi in 1985. It begins as 17-year-old Fay Jones has fled the decrepit shack where she had lived with her family. A highway patrolman stops her. She ends up moving in with him. Then people start dying violently. Don’t misunderstand, Fay is the innocent victim in all this.

I read Brown’s awesome “Dirty Work” (1989). Set in a VA hospital in Mississippi, it unfolds over 24 hours. Vietnam vets, one black, one white, both gravely wounded, meet for the first time. We switch between their viewpoints. Brown served in Vietnam.

I read Brown’s forgettable dud “The Rabbit Factory” (2003). Finally I read his thrilling novel “Father and Son” (1996). Set in 1968 as Glen Davis returns to his hometown following three years in prison. Glen seeks revenge. A goose-bump ending.

Thank you, Kent Haruf and Larry Brown. I finally listened.

RELATED “Grit Lit” titles

>> All are Welcome at “The Heavenly Table”

>> Crime Stories to Please the Ghouls Among Us

>> Characters Mesmerize in Chilling Debut Novel

Vick Mickunas’ Book Nook column runs every Sunday.

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