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Apex to Aberrant: Disability in Larry Brown's Dirty Work.

Dirty work is a book about how bodies are viewed, changed, and managed, on both individual and societal levels. This essay applies feminist and queer disability studies to Larry Brown's novel about heterosexual, disabled men. Feminist criticism, queer theory, and disability studies are all represented independently in literary criticism, but locating the intersection of the three is an effective means to read the disabled male body in southern society and southern literature. In Dirty Work, that intersection occurs in an unlikely place: a conversation between two men who have fallen from the apex of masculinity to a position of aberrance in the context of the post-Vietnam South. Several applications become immediately apparent at this identity crossroads, among them a local consideration of how bodies, particularly able male bodies, are constructed, maintained, and distorted in Brown's South. Instead of co-opting feminist and queer theories in service of patriarchal reinforcement, such a reading animates a usually dormant set of identities. Underneath the conversation between disabled men are the socially constructed abstractions of female and queer bodies, subtextually informing and mediating the lived experiences of the now-aberrant men.

Criticism on Brown's Dirty Work has mentioned disability only in passing. It is a plot device, part of the narrative frame that structures, but does not contribute to, the intellectual heft of the work, what David T. Mitchell and Sharon L. Snyder call "narrative prosthesis." (1) Pieces published on the novel focus, rightly so, on the Vietnam War, masculinity, and race. (2) Scholarship on Brown's corpus tends to address class, environment, violence, regionalism, and his literary influences and generic position. (3) Scholars are correct to study these fundamental aspects of Brown's work, but critics of Dirty Work have given only passing acknowledgment to disability in the novel. Bringing disability to the forefront shows how characters have fallen to a position articulated by Rosemarie Garland-Thomson. Nonvisible, "coming-out" discourse is useful for explaining and appreciating the relationship between Walter and Beth in the context of reading the entire novel through a disability lens. Despite a lack of interest in disability in Brown's work specifically, there is burgeoning consideration of disability in scholarship on the American South, Grit Lit, and in work by some of Brown's contemporaries and predecessors, including Harry Crews, William Faulkner, and Flannery O'Connor. (4) This essay participates in this emergent discourse and expands on this important work by incorporating strands of disability theory, feminist theory, and queer theory. Read in this way, Brown's Dirty Work is indicative of a South that, however hyper-masculinized, requires other historically marginalized, aberrant identities to help give voice to another disenfranchised group--the disabled Southern man.

Feminist Theory and Queer Theory

The discipline of disability theory has turned to feminist theory and queer theory in order to expand conceptions of the disabled body. Spearheaded by Garland-Thomson, feminist disability theory employs a view of the body as socially constructed, a conflict between normalcy and the other. Queer theory attempts to approach disability from the inside, describing the similarities in "coming out" for gay and disabled bodies, while also marking a distinction between visible and invisible disability. Each approach attempts to integrate disability studies into its discipline in order to call attention to heretofore unstudied disabled bodies. A noteworthy, though unremarked upon, outgrowth of these studies is the implications for how to approach the disabled male body. If the female and the disabled body come to be defined in similar ways--perceived as aberrant, abnormal, other--then the male who has become disabled becomes similarly coded as feminized and deviant. Furthermore, disabled men are then in a "coming out" situation, depending on the degree to which the disability is visible. Faced with the fall from superior to inferior status, how disabled men approach disability, personally and socially, can be informed by queer disability studies.

Garland-Thomson begins her discussion of the female and disabled body by quoting Aristotle, who laid the groundwork for establishing hierarchies of the typical and the aberrant in Generation of Animals, saying, "in these cases [the aberrant] Nature has in a way strayed from the generic type. The first beginning of this deviation is when a female is formed instead of a male." The idea that the female is somehow lacking --or as Aristotle says, "a deformed (or mutilated) male" (Extraordinary 19)--has informed, to different ends, many critical approaches in feminism. For Garland-Thomson, the power of that comparison comes from social relations: "A universalized disability discourse that draws on feminism's confrontation with the gender system requires understanding the body as a cultural text" (22). The social construction of the body is the crux of the relationship between feminist theory and disability studies. Garland-Thomson evokes Erwing Goffman's "stigma theory," Mary Douglas's "Concept of Dirt," and Foucault's "docile bodies" to show the social construction of the body, from stigmatization to an ideological transition favoring physical maintenance as political duty (30,33,38). To show how defective bodies are pathologized and managed in this able-bodied, corporeal configuration, Garland-Thomson develops a physical and metaphysical theory of the shared position that the female and the disabled body inhabit--they are rendered aberrant.

Queer theory's contributions to disability studies began as a reaction to the link between the female body and the disabled body. While recognizing the aberrant position that the two hold, queer theory submits that feminism does not offer a full enough understanding of disability. For example, disabled men and women are not always born that way; they do not necessarily share their "inferiority" with family and friends, and their position as "aberrant" is not always visible. If feminist disability theory can be said to offer an outside-in view of the disabled body--disability is constructed socially and stigmatization is created by the non-disabled--queer disability theory offers an inside perspective. While accepting that the body is a social construction and that marginalization is created by the non-marginalized, queer disability studies is concerned with how the individual disabled or homosexual body operates within that construction. Ellen Samuels confronts "the discursive and practical connections between coming out--in all the meanings of the term--as queer and as disabled" (233). Drawing on the work of John Swain and Colin Cameron's "Unless Otherwise Stated," Samuels describes society's assumption that individuals are both non-disabled and heterosexual "unless otherwise stated"--the very idea of normal (235). The idea of coming out, both for the disabled and the queer individual, is a political commitment, a willingness to accept that idea of their identity. Feminist disability theory in some way assumes that the disabled body is instantly visible and therefore immediately recognizable while Samuels asserts that coming out as disabled and queer involves a personal decision to enter into a new culture. The disabled person, then, must make a decision, to accept that facet of their identity, or remain hidden, if invisibility is an option. For those disabled bodies that are not readily visible--chronic illnesses, mental disability, or visible marks that can be hidden--and those that are visible, Samuels describes the "coming-out" discourse grammatically: "to 'come out to' a person or group usually refers to a specific revelatory event, while to 'come out' (without an object) usually refers to the time that one first realized and came to terms with one's own identity" (237). Those with visible disabilities have little choice in coming out to other people, as people with these conditions cannot decide whether or not to reveal themselves; they must come out to themselves. The invisibly disabled are faced with a choice of identity; that is, they can decide whether or not to reveal their disability and cope with the social constructions that surround it.

Both feminist theory and queer disability theory recognize multiple identities within the body rather than limited identification as just female, queer, or disabled. The two approaches need not conflict with each other for a more accurate portrayal of the disabled; they can be synthesized. Both approaches also use combinations of identity as a way of exposing and liberating female, queer, and disabled bodies. Garland-Thomson ends "Integrating Disability, Transforming Feminist Theory" with a section devoted to activism, and how a link between feminism and disability can empower female bodies and disabled bodies, as well as the disabled female body. Samuels, too, sees the link between queer theory and disability theory as a way to "find subversion at the meeting points between our bodies and our chosen communities, between our voices and the resistant audiences of power" and to offer "larger fields of queer and disability studies new possibilities beyond simple analogizing" (250). Dual approaches can serve as complementary mechanisms for enhancing the study and appreciation of the various identities concerned. In describing the struggle with her own disability, for instance, Samuels cites Garland-Thomson's "coming out" discourse. The two scholars are agreeable and compatible in their desired applications of disability studies.

These theories offer a unique way to revisit the very body that prompted Aristotle's original distinction, the body that constructed and promoted corporeal oppression in the first place: that of the heterosexual, able-bodied male. Responses to normalcy, male dominance, and the historical hierarchies of superior and inferior identities do not have to consider heterosexual men; that is not the subject of their activism. Disability, however, cuts across constructed lines of gender and sexuality. This essay draws from conceptions of feminine and queer identities in order to augment discussions of the disabled male body. This is not meant to vindicate a patriarchal society, but to approach a conception of masculinity that brings to the fore interconnections between gender, sexuality, and disability laid bare in Brown's Dirty Work.


Larry Brown's first novel is a tour-de-force. Twenty-two years after being wounded in the Vietnam War, the main characters, Braiden and Walter, find themselves at the outset of the novel lying next to each other in a Veterans Affairs hospital. Braiden has been there for twenty years, in the same bed; Walter was brought in for an incident not revealed until late in the novel. Braiden has no arms and no legs. Walter's face is disfigured, the result of a sniper rifle bullet. His wound also leads to occasional blackouts that leave Walter unconscious--sometimes for minutes, sometimes for hours at a time. The novel consists of the conversations the two men have over a two-day period. Their complex systems of coping with their fallen status, even in the tough terrain of Brown's South, at first offer hope for the disabled man. Sadly, poignantly, the novel's tragic end strips away hope, leaving, in the world of the novel at least, no optimistic outcome for the disabled man.

Prior to being disabled in the Vietnam War, Braiden and Walter were both able-bodied men. Foucault's contention that the modern body has evolved to value physical stature and maintenance for utilitarian purposes is evident in Braiden and Walter. They both come from cotton-picking families in Mississippi, where being able-bodied is particularly essential to livelihood. Though both Braiden and Walter were impoverished throughout their lives, their position as dominant men enabled them to work, fight, take care of their families, and, eventually, participate in war, which are constitutive characteristics of socially constructed ableism.

Braiden and Walter both know how it feels to be large, physically imposing men. Walter, in particular, is massive. Braiden estimates that he is well over six feet tall and probably weighs more than 250 pounds. Braiden remembers his own physical dominance: "I had a pretty good set of legs on me back then" (158). Picking cotton becomes a point of familiarity for Walter and Braiden. They both come from poor, working families who relied on their hands to make a living. Braiden remembers seeing cotton before going to war: "Cotton was up. Most of them around us had a pretty good stand. Looked like they's gonna make it good that year" (26). Picking cotton was how he defined himself, and he laments that he can no longer contribute to the traditional means of sustenance. We should not misappropriate Braiden's nostalgia for farming as a pastoral ideal, however. As Christopher Rieger notes, labor in Brown's novels--sharecropping and poisoning trees--is sometimes anti-pastoral, but economically necessary. The machines that destroy Arcadia are associated with hyper-masculinity. Braiden was one of those machines; his is a nostalgia of usefulness. Walter was also aware of the masculinity associated with labor. He describes nomadically following where cotton was growing, and spending his days in the field so that his mother could buy food to prepare. Walter's life was defined by his ability to perform labor so that women could cook. The women might have been domesticated, but not domestic. They were docile, in the Foucauldian sense, in that the maintenance and use of their physicality was seen--by the dominant culture--as an ideological duty.

Violence also determines masculinity, and like labor, it requires an appropriate physical capability. When Walter was young, his father was sent to prison. Walter explains how "that left me and mama to fend for ourselves, as they say" (29). Walter learned masculinity by what he perceived in his immediate surroundings. Interestingly, his mother was most responsible for his abiding image of manhood. He recounts a story of being bullied. His mother had sent him to the store to buy Kotex. Walter was unaware of what it was. After Walter left the store, the local bully beat him up, saw what he had bought and said, "'Kotex,' like it was a dirty word" (40). People outside the store laughed, watching "to see what I was made of. And they saw. Chickenshit. That's what I was made of. I picked up my dirty Kotex, and I went on home" (41). Walter's younger self equated feminine hygiene with being bullied. Because Kotex was "dirty," Walter associated it with his compromised masculinity. Further, Walter is identified with the Kotex, thus coding him as feminine. When Walter returned home, his mother scolded his cowardice and urged him to fight back: "I know now that she was ashamed of me. Not my father's son. Hell, I was ashamed of myself" (41).

Violence must be learned, and in the absence of his father, Walter's mother inherited the duty of imparting to him the concept of self-preservation that would inform the rest of his life: "If you don't take up for yourself in this world, there ain't nobody else that will. If you let him run over you once, he's gonna run over you again" (42). Getting run over implies weakness, which is perceived as feminine, in contrast to the supposedly inherent strength of able-bodied masculinity. Walter's mother operates in the traditional view that, to be a man, you must stick up for yourself in an inherently violent world. By marking Walter as feminine while he carries the Kotex, Brown underscores the novel's emphasis on ability's role in overcoming femininity through violence. Survival means harnessing violence. It is here implied that it takes not just an able body to do that, but a specifically male able body. (5) The next day at school, Walter stabs the bully, and is never bothered at school again. His early association with masculinity came in the form of violence: his father killed someone, his mother taught him that his father was a man, and Walter became violent in order to become a man. The connection between the feminine and disability climaxes when Braiden calls into question Walter's masculinity when trying to convince him to end his life. The Kotex incident, being marked by femininity, and his mother's lesson--the necessity of violence--prime Walter for the novel's ending.

Sexuality, too, is a gauge by which Walter and Braiden judge their masculinity and ability. Braiden continually comments on the influence of television on masculinity formation: "have to watch all that pussy on TV. Miss America. 'Days of Our Lives'" (19), and he continues, "Old Humphrey Bogart could get the damn women. Had them women crawling all over him" (21). Whereas labor and violence are more or less local constructions--or were, at least, locally constructed for Braiden and Walter--sexuality is reinforced by outside, encroaching, homogenizing commercial forces. Darlin' Neal notes the use of pop culture in Brown as a way of reinforcing and obscuring the reality of his characters. Braiden perceives his disability, which makes him decidedly unlike Humphrey Bogart, as rendering him asexual. Walter is more open and immediate with his sexuality. When a nurse is in the room, he thinks, "I sneaked looks at her tits once in a while. They were pretty awesome" (115), and later the nurse "got up and started fluffing my pillow. Rubbed one of her big old titties right across my nose one time. Inadvertently, of course." Walter remembers, "she had her legs up on the bed next to me. Fine, heavy, thick. Real legs" (143). His sexuality is more rooted in his immediate surroundings. Even in retrospect, his sexual development is rooted in the desire for immediate, physical contact. He recalls an old classmate, Mary Barry, saying "she had great big titties and great big glasses" (194). He describes reacting violently when a male student had sex with Mary and then boasted of it at school: "I mean, I used to hear guys talk all the time. Oh hell, I fucked so and so. I could never understand how they could tell that shit.... it'd take an asshole to go out and tell the whole world about it. I whipped a guy bad over that shit one time" (193-94). Walter's violent reaction to sexuality is, by the novel's standards, a particularly masculine moment in his pre-disabled life. His views of sexuality, coupled with his violent nature, manifest in his "whipping" of a disrespectful man. The nebulous intersection of gender, ability, and violence results in an act of chivalry at the local level. Whereas Braiden shows the encroachment of sexual homogeneity via television, probably because of his prolonged isolation from material markers of sexuality, Walter displays the local interplay between sexuality, violence, and the able-bodiedness that produces and controls both.

Finally, if labor, violence, and sexuality made Braiden and Walter men, becoming soldiers lifted them to the apex of masculinity. Walter remembers his drill sergeant, who said:
    We got an image to uphold here. The best in the world. There's
   bunch of them going over there in a few months that ain't coming
   back. They're gonna die for their country, they're gonna
die for
   their Marine Corps, for all the softass civilians like you guys
   used to be. The war ain't getting better. It's getting
worse. Now
   you pay afuckin tention or your ass comes home in a plastic bag.
   Don't die for your country! Make that motherfucker die for his!
   you understand me? (185-86)

Walter's drill sergeant enforces the idea of a soldier as hyper-masculine, an "image to uphold." Within the military, soldiers were believed to be better than average men. The drill sergeant invokes General Patton's WWII speech to the Third Army, an iconic expression of American military masculinity. They are willing to die for "the softass civilians," but their specifically American ability transcends previous perceptions of manliness. Though it's implied that a soldier can die and still be a man, the drill sergeant makes no mention of those men who become disabled. With the military, Brown moves able-bodied masculinity to a national framework. (6) The Mississippi setting may have incubated the characters' early conceptions of masculinity and its requisite able-bodiedness, but national and cultural forces secured the totalizing link between an able body and a useful body. This is the apex of masculinity that Braiden and Walter learned, achieved, and lost.


After becoming disabled, Walter and Braiden fall from the apex of masculinity to a position of aberrance. This change is best observed through their own reactions to society after coming home disabled. For Garland-Thomson, female bodies and disabled bodies are both anomalies. As such, they are "dealt" with in similar ways. She turns to Douglas's "Concept of Dirt" to describe the ways that society deals with anomalies: assignment to an absolute category, elimination, avoidance, labeling the anomaly dangerous, or incorporating "anomalous elements into ritual 'to enrich meaning or call attention to other levels of existence'" (Extraordinary 37). Braiden and Walter, having lived in a position of society where they could wield those concepts, recognize their new position in society and turn those solutions on themselves.

Most important in the novel is elimination. Douglas's concept involves the non-anomaly eliminating the anomaly, but Braiden uses self-elimination by enforcing his former able body's social response to his anomalous self. But Braiden is not physically capable of suicide. Throughout the novel, Braiden tries to convince Walter to kill him. At some point during his twenty-two-year residence at the hospital, Braiden has made up his mind to take his own life. "They take our arms and legs," he says, "you can't do nothing. Ain't no existence for a man" (108). Braiden's decision to die is linked with his masculinity. Even before his disability, Braiden saw suicide as a viable option. While in Vietnam, he finds a friend who had gone missing "wired to a tree. Yeah. I quit feeling bad then.... I made up my mind they wouldn't catch me alive. Always had me one round in my pocket for me. Yes sir" (163). But he did make it out alive, and without the necessary body parts to put his bullet to use. In trying to convince Walter to kill him, Braiden appeals to masculinity, telling him, "You ain't no man if you don't do this for me. I tired and I want to go home.... You been sent to me, Walter. You been sent and I ain't gonna be denied" (226-27). Braiden again equates masculinity with violence, as though Walter is not a real man unless he performs this mercy killing.

While waiting for elimination, Braiden passes the time by taking "trips," mental journeys designed to obscure his disabled existence. These cognitive escapes become a way of recapturing his former superior position. Walter comments on the seeming optimism of his trips, while also sharing his own avoidance: "it's like a defense mechanism. When you go somewhere ... where do you go? Africa? Africa. Well. You've had to do that to keep from going crazy, right?" (137). Braiden's trips have perhaps prevented insanity, but they have not softened his resolve to end his life. Braiden has daydreams of talking with Jesus. The fictional Jesus of Braiden's mind is aware that he wants to die. Jesus says, "you don't like living? ... Life's what He gave you, all of us." Braiden responds, "He didn't intend for some of us to be fucked up like this" (94). Jesus then informs Braiden to be patient, that he "ain't gone be here much longer" (174). Walter is to be Braiden's savior. Braiden's desire for elimination is his final solution to the problem of being an anomaly. Robert Donahoo, drawing on Brook Thomas's interpretation of Wolfgang Iser, argues that these trips force "readers to confront the inadequacy of existing constructions of reality" (20). He reads Braiden's trips as obscuring southern racial history. This may be, but more evident is the use of these "trips" to obscure a disabled reality and to reconstruct the normalcy that has been denied them. Mental journeys are thus momentary cognitive retreats into a previously constructed reality, a reality that disability has deconstructed.

At a certain point, cognitive retreat only reinforces what has been lost. In one trip, which begins the novel, Braiden imagines he is the leader of an African tribe. Braiden prefaces the story: "What things would have been like if.... history had been different. If I'd of lived in Africa and had me a son and was king in my own country" (1). Braiden imagines he is teaching his son how to become a man. In this tribal culture, he cannot become a man until he has killed a lion. He tells his son that lions are smart, they go for the weak, "or some little young fat boy who ain't never done nothing more strenuous with his daddy's spear than jab it up and down in the mud" (4). In his fantasy, Braiden understands the necessity of physical prowess, of able-bodiedness. His image of masculinity is so deeply ingrained that it manifests in artificial realities constructed for self-avoidance.

Avoidance is the primary mechanism that Walter uses to deal with anomaly. Both characters pretend to be asleep throughout the story, in order not to make contact with the able-bodied staff. Walter describes how he "did the smart thing. I woke up before I opened my eyes. I just laid there, I didn't move.... I had the idea that they were watching me.... if there was two of them, they'd discuss me" (7-8). Walter chooses not make his consciousness known in order to avoid human contact. He opts to listen to what is said about him instead of communicating. Before coming to the hospital, he even avoided his family:
    Usually I just stay in my room. I live with my mother and my
   brother. But don't see them much. They get the red-ass if they
   to look at me too much. Ah shit, I ought not say that. Hell. I know
   it hurts them to look at me, I just try to spare them. Stay out of
   the way. (70)

In addition to avoiding his family, Walter avoids himself. He drinks and smokes marijuana. Drinking makes his blackouts worse, but he does it anyway because it offers him a way out of consciousness. Instead of consulting alternate realities via "trips," Walter obscures disabled reality by triggering the very blackouts that are a manifestation of his disability. Walter's avoidance is caused by a recognition that he holds an undesirable position. He understands that his disfigured face is an anomaly and employs avoidance to "spare" his family. When he does come out of his room, it's only at night. Both characters are aware of their aberrance and choose to avoid those around them.

Walter's relationship with his disability is far more complex than Braiden's. Whereas Braiden long ago decided that elimination is the only solution to his disabled life, Walter finds someone who gives him hope: Beth. They meet on one of his late night excursions. They develop a quick friendship. They kiss. Walter is confused as to why a woman would be attracted to him. Even Braiden thinks, "Man, where you gonna find a woman that would mess with you? Cause I mean his face was messed up big time. Just scar tissue" (84). Walter relates their first kiss: "she said ... what I looked like didn't matter, and that she'd show me what she meant sometime.... She touched my face, all these messed-up places.... It was like she understood. She kissed me" (136). Later, Beth reveals hesitantly that she too is disabled, in the form of extensive scarring across her legs caused by a dog attack: "She said she hated for me to see her legs but she guessed sometime I'd have to. She didn't think anybody would want her. That's what it was" (156). Beth and Walter share similar misapprehensions about their ability to have a relationship; their mutual disabilities offer a ground on which to build one.

It is important to distinguish between Walter's visible disability and Beth's non-visible one. Recall Samuels's argument that the non-visibly disabled must "come out" to someone, while the visibly disabled must come out to themselves. Beth seems to enact the position of the non-visibly disabled. Her hesitance is a result of fear that she won't be accepted, that no one will want her. Walter has little choice but to be noticed, and so he must come to terms with his own identity. The characters' mutual disabilities, then, become a way for Beth to come out to someone and for Walter to come out to himself. When they first make love, it seems the relationship has done both: "He was messed up and she was messed up and somehow they had found each other like a miracle or dream. And in their combined dreams they were whole, and happy at last, and normal" (231). Their mutual abnormal identities made them normal. Walter and Beth exhibit the entanglement of ability, sexuality, and gender. "Coming out" is a response to her invisible disability, while Walter's acceptance of it--and of her--is informed by his own connections between disability and gender. Walter knows the similarities between ability and masculinity, having learned early on to associate disability with the feminine. This interconnectedness is an important reason that Walter and Beth are able to engage intellectually and sexually with their disabilities.

Brown creates optimism for Walter. Braiden long ago decided he wanted to die, but Walter finds hope in the form of another disabled body. Walter is able to come out to himself; he says, "I'd hidden from everybody for so long. I just withdrew from the world. Stayed in my room all that time. She made me feel like somebody again. Instead of just a freak" (212-13). Beth gives Walter renewed energy and convinces him to come to terms with his role in the world and his own identity:
    I wouldn't lock myself away in my room anymore. I'd live
with my
   family and try to help my mother.... I'd try to decide what to
   about my face and my head. There were other hospitals and other
   doctors, and people everywhere ready to help me. I'd take Beth
   to the house, and let Mama meet her, and the three of us could talk
   about it. (228-29)

But whatever optimism Walter gains from Beth quickly disappears. Walter eventually remembers why he was brought to the hospital--he smothered and killed Beth. His non-visible blackouts made him the instrument that killed her. It can also be assumed that his disfigured face was directly on top of Beth's, since they were kissing at the time of the blackout. His renewed identity is stripped away. He suddenly understands Braiden's resolve, and the novel ends with the implied smothering of Braiden. Essentially, Walter's disability killed two people--it directly caused the death of Beth, and, if it hadn't been for his blackouts, he would not have come to the hospital, the place where he would eventually kill Braiden. His singular moment of recuperated masculinity is unequivocally denied. Indeed, if it weren't for his massive stature, the size which contributed to his previous hyper-masculinity, perhaps he would not have suffocated Beth. His fallen male body is the culprit in his failed attempt at self-reconciliation.

The final passage returns to the apex of masculinity. Walter considers what Braiden is thinking about as he dies: "catching lightning bugs flying. Cotton picking in the Mississippi Delta ... the wire mesh we used to cling to, the people waving.... I think he dreamed of Africa.... while a man with a spear on his shoulder walked in black silhouette across the face of it" (236). Visions of masculinity precede Walter's killing of Braiden. Twenty-two years of avoidance, the desire for elimination, and the fall from apex to aberrant, and masculinity continues to haunt the two men. Everything Walter names in this passage requires able-bodiedness. Faced with the image of a man with a spear walking, Walter understands what Braiden has been wanting; he understands the primal need of men to be masculine. He understands that their disabilities have taken that away, aligning them with other aberrant identities. There is no hope in the novel for the disabled man. Once fallen from the apex of masculinity, there is no reclaiming it, and no coming to terms with the new identity. Brown's ending becomes especially tragic when he gives Walter hope, gives him Beth, only to take it away. Their disabilities become agents of death. The final lines express the hopelessness of disability: "I stood over him for a long moment. He opened his eyes and looked at me when I closed my hands around his throat. He said Jesus loves you. I shut my eyes because I knew better than that shit. I knew somewhere Jesus wept" (236).

Considering the implications of feminist theory and queer theory for disabled heterosexual men illuminates the tragic conclusion to Dirty Work. In the world of Brown's novel, one cannot successfully survive once fallen from a position of normalcy. By aligning the disabled male body with female bodies and queer bodies, the novel is not endorsing Aristotle's original hypothesis of woman as deformed man, nor is it suggesting something similar for the homosexual process of "coming out." While the novel is conspicuously devoid of explicitly queer identities, Beth's invisible disability channels the struggles of coming out as a disabled woman. Though she dies, it is not by virtue of her femininity or disability. In fact, she initiates what would have become her and Walter's deliverance from avoidance, and it was her and Walter's cognizance of female identity that allowed progress, however fleeting it may have been. It was Walter's male body that crushed growth. If anything, the novel suggests that bodies coded as "other" are better able to assume new identities; a maturity exists that does not for the fallen male. The instability of masculinity is discernible in Brown's nonfiction as well. While his biography bespeaks a hyper-masculine existence--a blue-collar, hard-drinking, ex-firefighter--there is nevertheless an air of anxiety. He peppers Billy Ray's Farm, for example, with moments that betray his masculine self-representation: Brown writes that when he learns of a friend's passing, "the journal entry doesn't tell about me crying in the kitchen, but I did" (88). Later, he recalls trying to corral a bull, admitting that "I be a man who be scared of his own bull" (113). Such doubt undergirds Dirty Work. While it appears to lionize masculinity, to aggrandize heterosexuality, the two always come up short, while the real tragedy is the suffocation of other identities' progress. Brown's novel about disabled men becomes viable real estate for examining the unspoken stigmatization of other identities.


Michigan State University

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Neal, Darlin'. "Facing the Music: What's Wrong with All Those Happy Endings." Cash and Perry 3-17.

Rieger, Christopher. "The Pickup Truck in the Garden: Larry Brown's Joe:' Mississippi Quarterly 63A (2010): 679-94.

Samuels, Ellen. "My Body, My Chest: Invisible Disability and the Limits of Coming-Out Discourse." GLQ: A Journal of lesbian and Gay Studies 9.1-2 (2003): 233-55.

Swain, John, and Cameron, Colin. "Unless otherwise stated : discourses of labelling and identity." Disability Discourse. Ed. Mairian Corker and Sally French. Philadelphia: Open UP, 1999. 68-78.

Thomson, Rosemarie Garland. Extraordinary Bodies: Figuring Physical Disability in American Culture and Literature. Columbia UP, 1997.

--. "Integrating Disability, Transforming Feminist Theory." NWSA Journal 14.3 (2002): 1-32.

Vernon, Zackary. "The Enfreakment of Southern Memoir in Harry Crews's A Childhood:' Mississippi Quarterly 67.2 (2014): 193-211.

Watson, Jay. "Economics of the Cracker Landscape: Poverty as an Environmental Issue in Larry Brown's Joe." Cash and Perry 49-57.

(1) "Narrative prosthesis," as defined by Mitchell and Snyder, is the "perpetual discursive dependency on disability" that manifests in literature "first, as a stock feature of characterization and, second, as an opportunistic metaphorical device" (47).

(2) Dan Allawat heralds the novel as one of the most accurate accounts of the Vietnam War ever written. Suzanne Jones takes up the issue of race, concluding that "although Brown assigns different races to his protagonists, he does not handle this difference as complexly as he might.... he shies away from a real dialogue between [the characters] about racial issues" (110). Robert Donahoo suggests that the implied mercy killing at the novel's end suggests that the artificial construction of the protagonists' (particularly Braiden's) reality is meant to conceal--and by so doing, confront--racial history.

(3) Class is presupposed in most Brown criticism. Look to the title of the only critical collection on Brown, Larry Brown and the Blue-Collar South, to note the centrality of class. Environmental readings of Brown range from poverty as an environmental issue (Watson) to the violent landscape of Fay (Beuka). Like class, violence is a ubiquitous aspect of both Brown's writing and criticism. Regionalism receives its most significant treatment in one of the more theoretically inclined articles on Brown, Paul Lyons's "Larry Brown's Joe and the Uses and Abuses of the 'Region' Concept." Literary influence and generic positioning in Brown includes Caldwell and southwestern humor (Atkinson), the American Western (Bjerre), and the refinement of literary naturalism (Giles).

(4) Harry Crews, for example, has been analyzed in light of Garland-Thomson's theory of "enfreakment" in Zackary Vernon's "The Enfreakment of Southern Memoir in Harry Crews's A Childhood." Disability has also been explicated in the work of Flannery O'Connor and William Faulkner, predecessors to Larry Brown, notably in Martin Halliwell's Images of Idiocy: the Idiot Figure in Modern Fiction and Film, and Taylor Hagood's Faulkner, Writer of Disability.

(5) Brown would later invert this earlier presupposition in Fay, where a female protagonist navigates the same harsh landscapes of Brown's male characters; see Robert Beuka's "Hard Traveling: Fay's Deep-South Landscape of Violence."

(6) Brown himself never was deployed while in the Marines, but observed disabled marines in his two-year stint at the Marine Barracks in Philadelphia (Cash xxii-xxiii).
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Author:Ploskonka, Mitch
Publication:The Mississippi Quarterly
Article Type:Critical essay
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jun 22, 2017
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