- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 2, 2004

Web only

It must be something in the water in Oxford, Miss. Or the air. Maybe the mixed scent of magnolia and fertilizer, or just the background radiation of old men talking soft around potbelly stoves in general stores at forgotten intersections of roads nobody else knows about.

Whatever it is, the writers there sprout like Johnson grass — so fast you don’t have time to read ‘em all, let alone celebrate each one the way they should be before they’re gone, and you can’t remember who’s here anymore. Then you see an obituary notice that stops you in your well-worn tracks: Larry Brown of Oxford, Miss., 53.

Yes, I’m talking about the postage-stamp piece of soil that could produce a Faulkner, the Southern Homer whom Flannery O’Connor, born in Georgia by accident when anybody knows she should have come from Oxford, Miss., called the Dixie Limited.

But I’m also talking about a place where a fireman and sometime sharecropper, hay hauler, convenience-store clerk, and carpet cleaner can write like … well, like Larry Brown. He’s the writer who lived in the nearby Tula community, and who died last week of a heart attack at only 53. And whose stories are, well, let’s just say he knew the secret of telling a story: “I’m a firm believer that if you don’t have a character in trouble, you don’t have a story.”

Oh, the trouble he’d seen. And the troubles he made us see. We’re still there in an argument between two people who don’t love each other anymore, kind of, and who once did, kind of. And we can’t bear to be there but have to stay because we ourselves have been there, only his sentences say what we felt so much better than we let ourselves feel it at the time. That’s a writer.

It didn’t come easy to a boy who flunked senior English in high school. Larry Brown spent years teaching himself how to write after work. He started because he’d always been a great reader and because, get this, he thought there might be some money in it. Talk about innocent.

Years passed between each of his first published stories but, boy, when they did start appearing, the world started reading. He persisted, and that’s being a writer, too. He went from nozzleman to fire captain, just as he did from gosh-awful he-man adventure writer to writer.

Reading his obits — in the New York Times, in the Washington Post — this part impressed most of all: Larry Brown himself was a happy man, a family man, survived by his wife of 30 years, his mother, his three children, all of whom live around Oxford, and two grandchildren.

But he saw people in trouble, and listened to what they said, and got it fearfully right. He paid attention. That is, he was a writer. From Oxford, Miss. That kind of writer. You read him and you’ll know what I mean.

Paul Greenberg is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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