Sunday

Toward Omniscience: Voice and POV in Larry Brown's Joe

It was difficult to choose what aspect if this amazing novel to focus on. I wanted to do something on dialog, but then I was captivated by Brown’s phenomenally good descriptions. In the end, though, I decided to focus on point of view, and how it relates to the all-important task of character development.

Throughout Joe Brown uses the third person POV like a lens, zooming in and out, increasing and decreasing the psychic distance the reader has on the characters.  Interspersed riffs of dialog and narrative serve to keep the voice fresh, allowing the reader to form a rounded picture of the characters and their landscapes. Whenever the dialog threatens to become confusing or annoyingly colloquial, Brown yanks you back into the story with a sharp description like this one:
The man on the tractor was coming alongside them in the field and he had his head bent to see the wheel in the row. He and his machine were engulfed in dust, the thin silt rolling up the tires and pouring like water off the cleats.
Such powerful descriptive detail not only grounds the reader but encourages him to want to invest time getting to know the close-third POV characters, whose implied sensibilities, after all, are so acute. The descriptions in this book never feel gratuitous. They reflect the characters’ mindsets with deep insight even as they render the setting in a clear and highly compelling way.

Most chapters begin with a vividly rendered visual image or, alternatively, a strong physical sensation to ground the reader in the scene and prepare him for what’s to come:
He drew a box of matches from his pocket and struck one. In the little fire that flared, his face loomed out of the dark, curiously intense and dirty, his hands needlessly cupping the small flame.
He closed his eyes and breathed in the stillness with his hands crossed on his chest like a man laid out on a coffin, his toes sticking out from under the edge of the bedspread.
The chapters focus alternately on separate but converging stories. To strengthen the linkage they are inlaid with loosely connected common imagery—owl shit, a screech owl, wrinkled dollar bills, a snake. Beer is the strongest linking detail: warm beer, cold beer. How good it tastes on a hot day; beer cans lying in ditches; cans the characters collect to trade in for food money.

The meeting of the two protagonists on page 86 causes a disruption in the ordered, parallel narrative universe of the novel. The page count is notably shorter than that of any of the preceding chapters — seven pages instead of eleven to nineteen — and it marks a big shift in the narrative's underlying structure. From this point on the chapters vary wildly in length, from one to twenty-four pages, and there is an explosion of different close-third POVs: Gary’s mother; Wade; murderous Wade; drunk Wade; Gary; Joe; Gary’s sister Fay; a storekeeper; John Coleman who runs the gas station. These varying POVs advance the story in numerous ways. The most important of these is that they provide new perspectives on the main characters, working like an artist’s pencil crosshatching to add body and mass to their portraits.

As the story goes on the chapters become more episodic, shifting POV’s frequently within chapters until the narrative voice evolves into something approaching pure omniscience. It’s important that this take place gradually, I suspect, because as we get to know all these characters more intimately it’s less off-putting to jump from one mind to the other than it would be if we didn’t know them at all. It works, because by this time we trust the implied narrator completely. The assertion of god-like authority has been gradual. We’ve been hooked for quite some time.

In the end, as you would expect, all the loose ends are tied up. The epilogue is a brief nature description that recalls Joe’s doomed and beautiful sensibility. It is the final flare-up before the snuffing out of the unique narrative voice that fires this gorgeous, highly recommended novel.