I read Fay by Larry Brown over the last few days. I snagged it because the e-book only worth a couple free tokens through the library and I’m pretty fired up about using my Kobo right now. The name Fay appeals to me, so the book caught my attention when I viewed it on my library website. When I downloaded Fay, I had no idea that it is the sequel to Larry Brown’s earlier novel Joe. Actually, I had never read Brown’s work before, so I began Fay with no expectations or assumptions about the book.
Originally, I was going to review Fay here at Blue Speckled Pup, partially because I haven’t written about a book for way too long, but also because I wanted to discuss the value of unlikable characters. While attempting to check Amazon for other titles by Larry Brown today, I saw that the Amazon ratings for Fay are spread pretty evenly over the range of one to five stars. Clearly, this is a polarizing read. Folks either love it or hate it, and to be fair, I couldn’t make up my mind either way at times as I read it.
I’m not going to say much about Fay, because discussing anything of substance regarding the book will spoil the plot for those of you who decide to read it. It opens with a teenage girl walking down a road alone as night swallows the landscape; she has nothing but the tattered clothes she is wearing, the cheap purse in her hand, the disintegrating shoes on her feet, and the two dollar bills hidden in her bra. I admit I was hooked three pages in.
Fay is an ugly novel. It is soaked in the stinking sludge of some of the worst things human beings do to one another and to themselves. I will probably be attacked by the literary people out there for this statement, but the writing in this piece actually reminded me of Faulkner in its bald, unapologetic manner and in heap of tragedy that stacks a little higher with each section of the novel. Brown doesn’t write tragedy as fluidly as Faulkner, but what he accomplishes so effectively in Fay is a story of gutting honesty from characters who describe their feelings and experiences without censorship or self-pity. I needed a few hours to recover from it before I could appreciate how good it is. Truth be told, I nearly threw my e-reader into the bath water last night when I reached the last page and was forced to accept an ending that crushed me. After my fury with the author subsided, which I realize was misplaced because he’s dead, I looked back on the plot as a whole and saw the complexity of the connections between seemingly meaningless events, and the unsettling avalanche of human frailty in the novel.
Is this the best book I’ve read in the last few years? Not even close. What it is, however, is a piece of fiction that captures the experiences of people mired in the dredges of society, the impoverished, uneducated, and often wholly unlikeable human beings few of us want to acknowledge, let alone think about for 435 pages. Brown is brave with his characters in Fay, only two of whom have any significant redeeming qualities, because he relies on the plot to keep the reader engaged rather than the common ploy of creating individuals the reader can root for. The story shifts between the viewpoints of several different individuals, often revealing feelings and plans hidden from the other characters with a bluntness that caused my jaw to drop and my stomach to twist several times.
After I was done reading the novel, I read some of the Amazon “reviews” from the readers who rated the book one or two stars to see what was going on for them. I’m using quotation marks around that word because of the content and quality of those reader responses; the best I can do right now is to use “reviews” sarcastically. I’m feeling a little riled by it all. By and large, the single star reviews I read (and even many of the doubles) discussed only the subject matter of the book and pronounced it worthless. I read “reviews” that attacked the rampant alcohol use and smoking in the novel, the foul language, and the (never graphic) sex, and declared that Fay is a stinker. Many also revealed the major plot twists (bad! bad! bad!) and were unable to comprehend how so many horrible things could happen in a single story, much less to such a small group of people. One reader had a real beef with the underage drinking in the story, because we all know teenagers never, ever drink before they are of legal age.
I think my frustration with most of the poor and abysmal “reviews” I read today is that people confuse reviewing the literature with complaining about the parts of the piece they find personally objectionable. If you are a person who never wants to read a racy scene, close your book (or shut it off) the first time something offends you or people start taking their clothes off. You will not be forced to read any further. Do not write a diatribe on Amazon about the pointlessness of the novel. Consider that the excessive consumption of alcohol develops character and establishes the painfully limited options and experiences of the people you are reading about, rather than condemning their choices: consider that real people in the actual world live like the fictional people you are reading about. Feel blessed that you cannot truly appreciate what these characters are going through because such things are so far from your own life.
What made me the most frustrated, though, were the “reviews” that stated Fay is not worth reading because it’s so depressing. There is a whole group of people out there convinced that dark literature is a bad thing. There are individuals who want to hide under a rock listening to Raffi while reading stories with happy endings tied in a bow with purple ribbons. Maybe this is one of the biggest problems with society, the people who are only interested in hearing good news and reading stories where some magical force shows up in the final quarter to save the day. These people want a contrived ending with satisfying closure. The bloat of “reality” television right now is evidence of this issue. Life can be brutal, and often when we least expect it. I can see the need some people have to escape into happier things, but fluff is not the only type of literature out there. Again, this is not A Clockwork Orange, and no one is forced to endure something they cannot stomach.
Perhaps, rather than condemning characters or ranting about how utterly hate-worthy the population of Fay is, those “reviewers” could consider why they are so disturbed the people and events in the novel. It’s plenty easy to make broad but shallow statements without actually putting thought into your own reactions to the literature. An effective response to a piece of literature requires critical thought and at least some introspection. Nitpicking and focusing on less relevant details from the novel, especially getting facts utterly incorrect, does not create a review that informs potential readers.
At risk of dissolving into a nit-picking rant myself, I would like to finish on one note. I will not –I truly cannot– take any book review seriously when the “reviewer” demonstrates a slack grasp of written communication. Amazon “review” crew: if you do not bother to spell, punctuate, and select the correct homophone, your opinions have about as much credibility as a block of havarti.
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