The pickup truck in the garden: Larry Brown's Joe.
Brown's novel may not seem to be pastoral in any conventional sense, but in fact it appropriates many traditional pastoral attitudes, themes, and devices. On a general level, Joe is about men attempting to work the land in order to make a living. But the natural world is more than just scenery in the novel, as Brown says in an interview shortly after its release: "One thing I wanted to do was to use the land like one of the characters, integral, a backdrop to all the action" (Conversations 51). Brown's characters also seek refuge from the world at large in a rural setting, a common feature of Southern pastoral of any era, when characters often flee modernity for an imagined past. (1) In interviews and in his nonfiction writing, Brown voices similar sentiments about his own rural life in Tula, Mississippi, outside of Oxford: "this is where I come when I want to be in a quiet place and a relaxed place and just get away from everything that I do the rest of my life" (Conversations 155). "Billy Ray's Farm," the title essay from his 2001 collection, starts with this idea of rural escape and posits a pastoral ideal for his son's planned farm:
I imagine that it is a place where tall trees grow and the deep green rolling pastures are dotted with flowers.... There are clear streams flowing, and the cattle drink in the shade, their elegant necks stretched to the cold water where small fish swim and bullfrogs trumpet in the evenings.... Billy Ray will work hard and his farm will earn him a living, and he will be happy.... God will smile down upon him and his efforts, and the farm will hum like a well-oiled machine. There will be dogs, and life will be good. (51-52)
In this essay, the farm occupies the traditional pastoral middle ground between wilderness and the ever-expanding boundaries of Oxford: "the streets were getting filled with more cars and more people and condos were going up all over everywhere.... I was born here. I remember how it was when I was a kid. Maybe that's just waxing nostalgia. Things are better in some ways and worse in others" (101). Brown recognizes the pastoral reality is not a simple, idyllic peace outside the problems of the "real world" (as the first passage I quoted may imply). That is, Brown's version of the pastoral is more what Marx calls "complex" as opposed to the escapist version he terms "sentimental." (2)
Later in "Billy Ray's Farm," for example, Brown illustrates the hardships of actually making a living in the pastoral place as he discusses quite unromantically and unsentimentally the herd that he tends:
And woe goes to the lowly part-time cattleman who thinks he'll throw fourteen cows and a bull into a pasture and soon start cashing fat checks from the sale of milk-fed junior beeves. They die having their babies and the babies die, too. They fall into holes and don't ever get up. They get out in the road and get hit by cars. They have to be caught and held and inoculated, dipped, dusted, palpated, deflated, dehorned, castrated, artificially inseminated, weighed, wormed, fitted with tags, or chased down by the vet when they throw out their uteruses. They don't have enough sense to get in out of the rain. They're a large disappointment to a man who wishes a carefree existence in this world. (113)
Passages like this one illustrate that Brown does not succumb to Marx's idealized, sentimental version of pastoral. Joe uses the pastoral ideas of escape and refuge but with a complex twist. While traditionally the pastoral realm is associated with the past, especially with the simplicities and verities of a golden age, the two central characters of Joe seek to escape from their pasts and to parlay their pastoral labor into a better future. Brown tackles tough questions about poverty and the environment, as Jay Watson notes in an article on foe and Janisse Ray's Ecology of a Cracker Childhood (497-506). Central to the complex pastoral in the novel is the pickup truck, which is both the mechanical counterforce to the pastoral ideal and the engine of economic salvation for the destitute and desperate Gary Jones.
The pickup truck in American and Southern cultures conveys some fairly specific meanings. All automobiles, of course, reflect something of their owners' personalities, expressing status, power, and self-image. Pickup trucks suggest working-class, utility, toughness, and masculinity, an identity amplified by ad campaigns in the years before and after the publication of Joe that tout practically nothing but those qualities. The fact that the bed of a pickup truck is designed for work, particularly outdoor manual labor, sets it apart from similar vehicles such as SUVs, which men and women use to lug groceries from Sam's Club and kids to soccer games in the suburbs. The pickup is the horse for the modern cowboy, whether it is actually used for work or as a "utilitarian chic" symbol for suburbanites.
In Brown's hyper-masculine novel, no women drive pickup trucks and no women have active roles, facts which fit Marx's description of the machine in the garden as an aggressive, masculine intruder on a feminine landscape (29). Joe's trucks--he has an old one and then buys a new one later in the novel--are masculine symbols of himself, and nature is a passive object that is, like the novel's female characters, at the mercy of violent, predatory men. Joe Ransom is nearly fifty years old and seems to have turned his life around after spending a couple of years in prison for fighting with the police. His old truck, like himself, is beat-up, run-down, but tough and still working. Joe is clearly describing both when he observes early in the novel, "This truck ain't old. It's just got some minor stuff wrong with it," and again a few minutes later when he calls it a "Ragged son of a bitch" because he has trouble getting it started (16). Later, when he is shot by an old rival named Willie Russell, Joe's truck takes the brunt of the damage, yet both keep on going after some minor repairs.
The pickup as a symbol of rugged masculinity and labor fits Joe well. In a novel populated with shiftless scammers and violent thieves, he is one of the only characters to hold a steady job. As an independent contractor with the timber giant Weyerhauser, which poisons second-growth trees and plants more profitable ones, Joe has accumulated quite a bit of money, though he retains the recreational habits of his poor white friends: heavy drinking, driving country roads (while drinking), and occasional bouts of fighting and other violence (after drinking). Gary Jones, the fifteen-year-old son of the degenerate, amoral Wade Jones (almost cartoonishly void of any redeeming qualities), looks at Joe as both a foothold on the economic ladder and a surrogate father. The dynamic Brown creates is analogous to the pastoral formula of wild and civilized poles mediated by a balanced, pastoral middle state: Joe and Wade are opposing forces with the virginal, unspoiled Gary in the contested middle ground. (3)
Put another way, Gary's desire to buy Joe's old truck is a desire both for freedom from his actual father and for economic freedom. In rural Mississippi, the ability to cover long distances can be imperative to economic security. Joe, for instance, has to pick up his workers in his truck: the pickup is part of what makes him the boss, while the workers depend on him for their ride and their job. Gary tells Joe: "I'll work. I need a job bad. I'm tryin to save my money and get me a car. Or a truck. If I had me somethin to go in I could get me a regular job. That's what I need. But I can't get a car till I get a job" (170). Gary is caught in the catch-22 by which the poor are kept poor: a vehicle would mean economic self-sufficiency, but the lack of a job prevents him from being able to afford transportation. Brown recounts, in a 1989 interview, similar feelings about the connection between transportation and economic self-sufficiency when he graduated from high school: "About the only thing I was concerned with was just getting out and getting me a job and buying myself a car. I wanted to have a way to go and I didn't have any way to go, and I knew I couldn't have one until I went to work" (Conversations 16).
Although work--any type of work--is enough to make a character laudable in Joe, Brown complicates things because of the destruction of nature involved in Joe's work. While Gary profits both financially and personally from his relationship with Joe, Gary is also identified with the natural landscape that is being destroyed for profit. He finds refuge and solace in the woods surrounding the ramshackle house his family has been squatting in, and some of the lushest description in Brown's otherwise spare prose occurs as Gary roams in nature:
a thin trickle of water coursed musically over the shattered stones.... A weak sun was trying to break through the tattered clouds.... His eye caught a flicker of movement ahead and he walked closer to see a box turtle with patterns of yellow sunbursts on its back like the imprint of a kaleidoscope. (108-09)
However, also in those woods is the mysterious, solitary grave of a ten-year-old boy, a symbol of lost innocence which indicates that this pastoral retreat is actually full of the threats of society, not really a haven at all: "Perhaps he'd played here. Or died here" (110). Instead of the typical pastoral pattern of retreat to nature and return to society, the scene of Gary's tranquil walk in the woods is interrupted:
They were a group of seven or eight black men, with their shirts tied around their waists, some with flashing silver tubes in their hands and some with bright orange, all of them spread out arms' width apart and traveling slowly to the trees, then around and around them, stabbing and slashing.... They were shouting back and forth to one another things he couldn't make out. (111)
This intrusion on Gary's meditative walk, reminiscent of the train whistle that interrupts Thoreau's meditations in Walden, is Joe's gang of workers poisoning the trees. Brown underscores their work as the destruction of nature as Gary watches the men savagely beat what turns out to be a snake that happens to cross their path:
with short cries and hysterical abandon [they] began hacking and beating the spot with their sticks and poison guns, darting in and out like dogs on a bayed bear. They were all talking and shouting at the same time, a hoarse chorus of curses that echoed and disturbed greatly the solitude of the woods, and they seemed frantic in their fear of whatever lay so helpless in the face of this ferocious attack.... the sticks whacking on the ground in relentless unison and sounding strangely hollow on the earth. (112)
The comparison to a bayed bear calls to mind another fictional north Mississippi wilderness, the Big Woods in Faulkner's Go Down, Moses, where the death of the legendary bear Old Ben similarly signals the destruction of the wilderness at the hands of loggers. Also as in Faulkner's novel, the allusion to the snake in the garden is not simply a symbol of evil, but of nature itself.
However, for Gary the snake surely does represent sin as well, the sins of his monstrous father. Brown informs us that Gary has shown the grave to his little sister, whose self-imposed silence the novel later reveals to be a consequence of her evil father's abuse. While Gary roams the woods contemplating the grave and his sister, he encounters Joe's work crew killing the snake. In Gary's eyes, Joe, the boss of these men who destroy the snake, could perhaps also get rid of (if not replace) his father. Brown seems detached and nonjudgmental in his depiction of the work that Joe and Gary do in poisoning the trees. Although he writes that "There seemed to be no logical purpose to their work" (112), he recognizes that this work represents a chance to escape dire poverty and a hellish home life. When Gary enthusiastically accepts a job from Joe at the end of this scene, Brown matter-of-factly writes, "The boy had crossed on a log and was already attacking the young sycamores on the far side with a ferocity driven by the promise of money" (128). Brown recognizes that money compels the poor to treat both nature and humans badly.
Asked by an interviewer about Joe's job, Brown explains his character's dilemma: "He's lucked out and got this job which pays very well, but he has to think about what he's doing, which is killing a living organism, a living forest. He's not happy with what he's doing but it's a job. I guess he looks at it maybe, 'If I don't do it, somebody else will. It's going to get done'" (87). Joe's sense of fatalism and the fact that he does a job about which he has moral reservations only for the money are not just aspects of his character; rather they are direct consequences of his class status. In a 2004 interview, Brown strikes a positively Marxist tone discussing working-class people like Joe and Gary:
I have great sympathy for the good people of the working class. They have a hard time making ends meet, even when they work very hard and the fat cats in this country just keep getting fatter and not paying their fair share of income tax because the government allows it to be that way and gets rid of American jobs and gives them to foreigners. There's much injustice. The little man is kept down by the big man. (Conversations 192-93)
Given the complexities of the globalized workforce and marketplace alluded to by Brown, it is perhaps little wonder that he voices in that same interview a desire to retreat to a simpler rural hideaway: "I prefer to stay with my growing family and my work and my pond and my little house I built in the woods behind it. That's plenty of life for me" (196). However, in both his life and his fiction, Brown recognizes an essential truth about the pastoral impulse: you can never leave it all behind.
The pastoral mode is ideally about the harmonic combination of nature and culture in the balanced state of a middle ground. Yet Brown, like Erskine Caldwell sixty years earlier, shows that this combination is anything but harmonic and healthy in the rural South, both for the people and the land. As I have argued elsewhere (22-52), Caldwell creates an anti-pastoral in works like Tobacco Road(1932) in which the traditional relationship of the independent yeoman farmer with his land is inverted and becomes a nightmarish cycle of deprivation and decay for both the land and its human inhabitants. (4) The anti-pastoral of these two authors rejects the traditional, sentimental pastoral pose of repose in a bucolic countryside. Whereas for Thoreau and Marx the nature lover's reverie is thwarted by the train whistle and the machine is an outside threat invading the garden, for Brown and Caldwell the machine is a resident of the garden, brought in by the worker with a (perhaps former) connection to the land. In Tobacco Road, a car is the machine in the garden, the new car that Sister Bessie Rice buys and Dude Lester drives destructively through the countryside, maniacally blowing the horn that fascinates him so, running over a horse and buggy and killing its black driver in a symbolic destruction of the rural past. Joe's reckless careening down country roads while drinking dozens of beers throughout the novel makes his pickup the new face of Leo Marx's machine, an emblem of technology that refuses to be confined to the traditional boundaries of the city and threatens the pastoral design. Just as sharecropping has destroyed and polluted the natural world in Caldwell's novel, the timber industry is ravaging the landscape in Brown's.
Although he kills trees for a living, Joe is at least working. He is also aware of and conflicted about the nature of his job: "He surveyed his domain and the dominion he held over them not lightly, his eyes half-lidded and sleepy under the dying forest. He didn't feel good about being the one to kill it. He guessed it never occurred to any of them what they were doing. But it had occurred to him" (203). Brown does not seem to look down on Joe for his work, for reasons that bring us back to Caldwell's Great Depression novels, Tobacco Road and God's Little Acre (1933), which equate lack of work with a loss of manhood. His characters, like Brown's, are almost desperate to work in order to give their lives meaning, and their questionable ethics stem from their extreme poverty. Brown also recognizes, as Caldwell does, that the type of work available to the poor often requires doing harm to the environment. Although Brown himself worked a job like Joe's, he also recognizes the ecological importance of the trees he killed: "Hardwood forests support so many different forms of life.... Once you lose that hardwood forest you've lost it forever, because they take so long to grow" (Conversations 87). The drive to escape from poverty, however, can easily override more abstract, less immediate environmental issues: "I used to do that for a part-time living. I'm not proud of what I did. I did it simply for the money, to feed my family. I deadened timber in the springtime and the summer, and planted the pines in the winter.... Joe gave me a great opportunity to show the landscape, and to set my characters against it" (Conversations 88).
Brown's phrase "set my characters against it" implies an adversarial relationship with the environment, which is a direct result of poverty. Temporary workers like Brown and his characters have no real attachment to the land. (5) Similarly, Caldwell's sharecroppers lack the typical pastoral connection with nature because they are not working their own land. They are simply hired hands trying to extract as much money per acre as possible in the short term, even when over-reliance on fertilizer and the mono-crop planting of cotton degrade the environment in the long term. (6) Thus, Joe might even be read as a sort of social protest fiction, similar to Caldwell's novels, in its detailing of the debased lives and meager futures of working-class people trapped in cyclical poverty. For both Caldwell and Brown, the breakdown of the relationship between humans and their natural environment coincides with a worsening of familial and social bonds. Just as it does with Jeerer Lester, Joe's lack of husbandry for the environment mirrors his shortcomings as a husband and father, although his new relationship with Gary provides hope of rehabilitation.
Thus, Brown tempers the pickup truck's significance as a destructive force on the environment through two important mitigating factors: the poor economic situations of most of his characters and the truck's additional symbolic value as Joe in his father figure role. Of course, these two things are linked since a relationship with Joe means for Gary potential freedom from both his father and his poverty. Joe begins thinking about buying a new truck shortly after his relationship with Gary begins, signifying the possibility of redemption and a new start. Joe has not been much of a father to his own children, and Gary represents a new, untainted opportunity for a mentoring, paternal role. Fittingly, the pair bond while working on Joe's old truck, Joe wondering what Gary sees in either of them: "He looked at the boy. Then he looked at the truck. It was old, it was dirty, it was junky. But he guessed he wasn't looking at it from the boy's side. The boy had probably never had anything to call his own" (199). Joe first calls Gary his friend while they work on the truck, cemented in this culture by giving him a beer, and the act of fixing the truck is important as a counter to the decay that affects so much else in the novel. Repairing the old truck is actively reversing the process of decay, and making it--and himself--run well again is a consequence of Joe's working together with Gary. Fittingly, as they fix the old truck, Joe tells Gary that he can do more restorative work with his crew in the spring, planting the new pine seedlings. "Planting pays more than deadening," he tells the boy (254).
The rehabilitation work that Joe does on the truck and on himself redeems a character who might otherwise be quite unlikable, due to his alcoholism, his numerous acts of violence, and his unwillingness to involve himself with his children or even visit his newborn grandson. Frankly, even his surrogate parenting to the troubled Gary is highly suspect, as he teaches him to drink and smoke and treats him to his first sexual experience at a local brothel. Despite his questionable parenting skills, Joe is far superior to Gary's actual father Wade, who beats his wife and children, takes food from their plates, steals Gary's hidden wages, and, as we discover late in the novel, even sells his own children.
When Joe buys a brand new truck with automatic transmission, air conditioning, and a V-8 engine, it signals a new and improved Joe, brought out by the nurturing (if dysfunctional) relationship with Gary. Joe begins thinking more about avoiding a return to prison, and he warns Wade while they sit in Joe's new truck not to steal Gary's savings earmarked for buying Joe's old pickup: "I could give a shit whether he pays me the money or not.... But he wants that truck. And if I find out something's happened to his money, I'm going to whip whoever's ass had something to do with it. Now get out. Before I knock your ass out" (301). Joe is fiercely protective of his new relationship with Gary, as well as of his new truck. Less than an hour after buying it, when a deadbeat customer at his friend's store smudges it with his dirty hands, Joe decks him with one punch. Likewise, Joe cannot keep his dirty past from encroaching on his new life. In fact, the first thing he does after buying the truck is to fill it with a case of Pabst Blue Ribbon and three bottles of whiskey.
This inability to completely atone for the mistakes of the past, to truly start over, to escape into a pastoral retreat, plays an important role in the book's ending. After Gary purchases Joe's old truck, Wade steals it and reaches a new low for an already despicable character, prostituting his youngest daughter, Dorothy, to two sleazy men and using the back of the old pickup for the rape. When Joe and Gary come upon this scene in the woods, Joe's new truck becomes a place of refuge and a means of escape for Gary and Dorothy. Joe remembers that no one did anything while young inmates were raped in prison, and now he looks to make some sort of amends: while Wade and one man run away, Joe apparently kills the third man (his old nemesis Willie Russell), an act that will likely return him to prison.
The fact that this defilement of young Dorothy happens in Joe's old pickup suggests that the culture of boozing, violence, and misogyny that pervades the novel, in which Joe is an active, willing participant, has in some way led to this brutal conclusion. Brown undercuts the truck as a symbol of self-sufficiency and rugged masculinity here, replacing Joe's sexual prowess with the predatory, violent pedophilia of men raping a little girl and thereby drawing a parallel to the rape of the environment. For Watson, this incident completely discredits "the automobile as an emancipatory or empowering force, linking it instead with the abuse and enslavement of children" (505). Watson argues that because of this incident the pickup becomes a symbol only of despoliation; the same bed in which Dorothy's rape occurs carried the chemicals to poison the trees.
Watson analyzes another scene late in the novel to argue that Brown undercuts "the middle-class lifestyle toward which Gary's and Joe's economic aspirations implicitly point" (506). After a late night of drinking and partying, Joe wakes up in a house with satin sheets, parquet floors, a gas grill, and a swimming pool. As Joe spends the day with its well-tanned owner sipping beer on her chaise lounges and eating porterhouse steaks, he has an odd dream about prison as he drifts off to sleep that evening:
He dreamed of the prison yard ... him on his knees pulling tomatoes and beans and peas, of the heavy wire mesh fences that fenced in the inmates, of the smoky lights that loomed in the darkness outside the camps, where in the black towers the unseen guards with their rifles sat watching for movement in the packed dirt beside the buildings. (327-28)
Joe slips quietly out of the house before the next morning, leaving behind this apparent middle-class paradise, and the novel's next scene is that of Wade's using Joe's old truck for the rape of Dorothy. Watson reads Joe's dream and subsequent flight from his lover's house as Brown's equivocation of a middle-class existence and a prison sentence: "if economic advancement leads only to entrapment, then what kind of bargain have Joe and Gary really struck in trading away the woods for the means of access to this genteel world?" (506).
While Watson's reading is persuasive, I want to argue for a slightly different interpretation. Earlier on the day of his prison dream, Joe has another dream while lying alone in the satin sheets:
Settling in peace he dreamed of the cotton fields of his youth, the shimmering rows spread out before him as he worked, the little plants falling away cleanly from the sharp blade of the hoe ... working his way toward the end of the row and the shade where the water bottle and his lunch waited. He worked an endless row in his dream and his mouth was dry in the dream and he came awake with a great thirst. (324-25)
This typical pastoral farm setting (as opposed to the prison), I would argue, is actually the representation of the alluring middle-class lifestyle, the "shimmering" and "endless" rows offering an illimitable source of work (and therefore wages). It represents the escapist tendencies of the sentimental variety of pastoral, a retreat from the problems of the world, that Joe recognizes as a false idyll, as the references to the "field of his youth" and his unsated thirst imply. Leaving Gary behind and staying with this new lover would be like turning away from reality toward this appealing but false version of the easy life.
The later prison dream, in my reading, is more a premonition of what awaits him when he forsakes his potential escape to a land of swimming pools and gas grills. He knows that returning to help Gary will likely mean the violent showdown with Wade that Brown has foreshadowed throughout the latter half of the novel. To put this another way, let me return to the pastoral terminology. The pickup truck, as the machine in the garden, is the threatening counterforce to the pastoral haven, symbolizing not only technology but all of human culture that threatens to overwhelm nature. But this equation is very different for someone like Gary. Brown's novel demonstrates (as Watson argues) that it is not so easy to condemn the destruction of the environment when a job poisoning trees is perhaps the only way to eat and stay alive. Brown resists the simple equation of "killing nature equals bad." Similarly, he does not indulge in sentimental pastoral fantasies of rural peace and contentment. This sentimental version of the pastoral arcadia is as unattainable in Brown's South as "the cotton fields of his youth" are to Joe. Thus Joe rejects this dream and accepts his role as father figure and protector of Gary and Dorothy knowing full well that doing so likely entails accepting the reality of his second dream, a return to prison.
Joe illustrates the degree to which economic and environmental concerns are intertwined, especially for the rural poor who have so often been used and discarded, just like natural resources in the South. Poor Southern laborers have historically also been destroyers of the natural world whether through ecologically unsound mono-crop farming, exploitative sharecropping, coal mining, turpentine farming, or lumbering. The one-page epilogue to Joe seems to show Gary in the same precarious position he was in before, his rise up the socioeconomic ladder very much in doubt. Brown describes the barren winter trees and the boy piling wood for the coming cold, with no sign of Wade, Joe, or Dorothy at all, before drifting into more timeless, rhapsodic natural imagery:
They'd stand looking up until the geese diminished and fled crying out over the heavens and away into the smoking clouds, their voices dying slowly, one last note the only sound and proof of their passing, that and the final wink of motion that swallowed them up into the sky and the earth that met it and the pine trees always green and constant against the great blue wildness that lay forever beyond. (345)
For Watson, this passage emphasizes the inaccessibility of economic prosperity, the flying geese mocking the entrapment of the humans below. Watson may be right, but the epilogue also softens the ending of the novel quite a bit. Otherwise the concluding scene would be one in which a worthless father prostitutes his daughter for sixty dollars to two degenerate lowlifes, only to be interrupted by a slightly less degenerate lowlife who vengefully kills at least one of them, while the despicable father apparently escapes. For so many reasons, this is an unsatisfying ending. But that may be Brown's point.
Asked by interviewers about the novel's ending, Brown reveals that he struggled with an appropriate conclusion:
I wrote that ending about five different times. Then I ultimately decided that I couldn't be faithful to the rest of the book without it ending the way that it did. I had one happy-go-lucky, happily-ever-after ending, but I said that's not what would have happened.... Because the old man was so sorry and he was so determined to have whatever he wanted at whatever cost to anybody else, that I think it was inevitable that that happened. (Conversations 54)
This comment certainly suggests that Brown purposefully forgoes a happy ending for one more appropriate to his rejection of the sentimental pastoral mode throughout. In a separate interview he offers slightly more information about the novel's conclusion: "there was really only one way to end it, although everybody might not be happy with it" (Conversations 43). While Brown's meaning is still perhaps a bit unclear here, he seems to be saying that not everyone will be happy about not knowing Wade's fate. In other words, the ending is intentionally ambiguous and that's the way Brown wants it. Similarly, then, the epilogue is intentionally ambiguous: it might be hopeful and it might be a false hope (as Watson argues). (7)
Not coincidentally, Fay (2000), Brown's sequel to Joe which follows Gary's other sister after she runs away from their father's lechery, also employs birds as recurring symbols and features an ambiguous epilogue. The repeated glimpses of birds flying underscore Fay's search for freedom, and the most important symbol in the novel is the bird painted on Sam's mailbox by his now-dead daughter. This fading image symbolizes his fading memory of his daughter, as well as Fay's fading innocence. The bird symbolism for Brown is ambiguous since soaring birds are both elusive and hopeful. The epilogue to Fay reveals that the title character has escaped the violence that engulfs the novel's ending, but also implies that she has sunk further into the seedy underworld of drug-infested strip clubs that she had been trying to rise above. The ambiguity of both novels' epilogues seems intentional and also fitting for a new version of pastoral. Brown says that creating characters for him is an exercise in finding that middle ground: "There are two ways you can go. You can be sentimental, or you can be hard-hearted. The perfect place to be is right in the middle" (Conversations 95).
In rejecting the easy pastoral escape into romanticized nature, Brown illustrates that we are still in need of a middle way when it comes to reconciling the needs of nature and of poor people. Our current ways of combining the human and natural leave, in Joe anyway, a completely unsatisfactory choice between accepting crushing poverty or participating in environmental destruction. Brown employs what ecocritic Lawrence Buell calls pastoral's "multiple frames" (36), its simultaneous centripetal and centrifugal forces (50), and what British critic Terry Gifford describes as pastoral's ability to combine multiple meanings:
So the pastoral can be a mode of political critique of present society, or it can be a dramatic form of unresolved dialogue about the tensions in that society, or it can be a retreat from politics into an apparently aesthetic landscape that is devoid of conflict and tension. It is this very versatility of the pastoral to both contain and appear to evade tensions and contradictions ... that [makes] the form so durable and so fascinating" (11)
Joe engages in all three of these modes, but while Watson sees more of the third approach (a retreat to an aesthetic landscape) in the novel's ending, I see more of the second. For instance, while Watson sees the image of "constant" trees as hollow(512), I see it (perhaps more naively) as optimistic, an image that suggests the perseverance of hope, horizon, and change. After all, the monstrous Wade is gone, and his presence has been a shadow keeping the family in the dark. His absence is a chance to start anew, but this is not the same as a happy ending.
Brown leaves unresolved the issues of economic opportunity, environmental justice, and responsible land-use that he raises, and in doing so he suggests the need for a new type of pastoral vision, a new way of imagining humans' interactions with nature that is less destructive to both. The histories of Southern land use, labor relations, and poverty have brought us to a place that is not pretty, and Brown wants us to face up to the ugly, harsh realities. The pickup truck is a conflicted symbol throughout the novel. It is not only the destructive machine in the garden of Marx's classic pastoral formulation. In casting the pickup simultaneously as a potential vehicle for class mobility, Brown demonstrates awareness that technology and industry are necessary parts of the landscape of modern America. To make the pickup a symbol only of evil and destruction would be to renew the reactionary anti-industrialization view of I'll Take My Stand. But just as Joe rejects the fantasy of a return to the cotton fields of his childhood, Brown recognizes that the machine and the garden will have to coexist. Thus, his novel's ending is hopeful as well as elegiac, ambiguously looking toward an uncertain future.
Bonetti, Kay. "An Interview with Larry Brown." Conversations 79-98.
Brown, Larry. Billy Ray's Farm." Essays from a Place Called Tula. Chapel Hill: Algonquin, 2001.
-- Conversations with Larry Brown. Ed. Jay Watson. Jackson: UP of Mississippi, 2007.
--. Joe. Chapel Hill: Algonquin, 1991.
--, Mary Annie Brown, and Leona Barlow Brown. "The Rough South of Larry Brown." Conversations 147-62.
Buell, Lawrence. The Environmental Imagination: Thoreau, Nature Writing, and the Formation of American Culture. Cambridge, MA: Belknap, 1995.
Day, Orman. "That Secret Code." Conversations 190-96.
Gifford, Terry. Pastoral. New York: Routledge, 1999.
Guinn, Matthew. Aider Southern Modernism: Fiction of the Contemporary South. Jackson: UP of Mississippi, 2000.
Klein, Naomi. No Logo. New York: Picador, 2000.
LaRue, Dorie. "Interview with Larry Brown: Bread Loaf 1992." Conversations 45-61.
Lesnik-Oberstein, Karin. "Children's Literature and the Environment." Writing the Environment." Ecocriticism and Literature. Ed. Richard Kerridge and Neil Sammells. London: Zed, 1998. 208-17.
Marx, Leo. The Machine in the Garden." Technology and the Pastoral Ideal in America. New York: Oxford UP, 1964.
Mort, John. Rev. of Fay. Booklist 96:9/10 (Jan. 1 and 15, 2000): 833.
Rieger, Christopher. Clear-Cutting Eden." Ecology and the Pastoral in Southern Literature. Tuscaloosa: U of Alabama P, 2009.
Summer, Bob. "Publishers Weekly Interviews Larry Brown: The Former Firefighter Talks about His Long Apprenticeship as a Writer." Conversations 40-44.
Swaim, Don. "Book Beat Interview with Larry Brown." Conversations 15-25.
Vance, Rupert. Human Geography of the South. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 1932.
Watson, Jay. "Economics of a Cracker Landscape: Poverty as an Environmental Issue in Two Southern Writers." Mississippi Quarterly 55 (Fall 2002): 497-513.
Southeast Missouri State University
(1) Numerous examples from Southern literature include the novels of William Gilmore Simms, much of Thomas Nelson Page's fiction, Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings's South Moon Under(1933) and The Yearling (1940), Faulkner's Go Down, Moses (1942), and the essays of I'll Take My Stand (1930).
(2) Marx differentiates between an "imaginative and complex" version of pastoral and "one that is popular and sentimental" (5), the latter of which he goes on to describe as "simple-minded" and an "escape from reality" (10).
(3) Children's literature critic Karin Lesnik-Oberstein, who traces the modern invention of the idea of children as truly natural to John Locke and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, explains that the concepts of "child" and "nature" are related "through their joint construction as the essential, the unconstructed, spontaneous and uncontaminated" (210). Appropriately, Gary is linked with the natural world throughout the novel.
(4) Matthew Guinn's chapter on Brown in After Southern Modernism argues for Brown to be read as a naturalist, which provides a different way of linking him with Caldwell.
(5) As books like Naomi Klein's No Logo have shown, the 1980s and 1990s are a time of huge increases in the use of temporary workers in the United States, as well as the outsourcing of jobs overseas. While I am not suggesting that Brown is necessarily aware of or responding directly to the rising number of temporary jobs, he is, at least tangentially, touching on an important cultural and economic issue through Joe's detachment from the land he works and from the deadly effects of his job.
(6) Rupert Vance discusses the ecological effects of over-fertilization and other agricultural practices during Caldwell's time (see especially 93 106).
(7) Matthew Guinn says that the epilogue "with its mix of pastoral and determinism, is a cogent expression of his [Brown's] perspective.... Forever beyond. Could a naturalist novel have a more appropriate conclusion?" (56).
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|Publication:||The Mississippi Quarterly|
|Article Type:||Critical essay|
|Date:||Jun 22, 2010|
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