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Fiction in Brief

FACING THE MUSIC Stories by Larry Brown (Algonquin Books: $12.95)

September 04, 1988|ALEX RAKSIN

Larry Brown discovered William Faulkner in an Oxford, Miss., bookstore after serving as a Marine during the Vietnam War. Brown's style differs from Faulkner's in important ways--lacking the sophisticated technique of a long-time writer, for one--but it's easy to see why Brown felt a spiritual link to the writer who depicted the way traditional values were torn asunder by military defeat. Whether their battle was Vietnam or the Civil War, both writers are interested in how people survive loss.

There are no inspirational stories in this first collection, for Brown's characters don't embrace joy despite tragedy; they simply go on. In "Facing the Music," for instance, a man stares at a late-night TV show about an alcoholic while his wife tries to make contact. Brown raises our hopes when the man remembers a halcyon day from their honeymoon 23 years earlier: "I'm thinking that your first love is your best love, that you'll never find any better." They make love, "and the way she did it was like she was saying, 'here I am, I'm all yours, all of me, forever. Nothing's changed.' " Subtly pointing out the self-deception in their sex, however, Brown doesn't let this story end without a dark note: "She turns the light off, and we reach to find each other in the darkness like people who are blind."

Brown's conviction that life is colored by imperfect resolutions leads most of these stories to similarly depressing conclusions. But until that point, Brown's characters usually experience a motley of emotions, a fact sometimes concealed by Brown's simple, deadpan style. In "The Rich," for example, a particularly fine short story about a poor travel agent who is forever trying to impress his wealthy clients, the agent is by turns curious ("Do the rich watch Kung Fu quickies? Eat TV dinners? Are the rich so different from himself?"), proud ("With his phone, with the blessing of the rich, he is as the rich. He is their servant, their confidant, their messenger") and furious ("What he'd really like to do is machine-gun the rich").

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