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CHRISTOPHER RIEGER Southeast Missouri State University The Pickup Truck in the Garden: Larry Brown’s Joe ALTHOUGH PICKUP TRUCKS ARE DESIGNED TO HAUL LOADS, THEY HAVE NOT carried much symbolic meaning in the annals of Southern literature. Larry Brown changes this in Joe (1991). Leo Marx’s famous study of American pastoral The Machine in the Garden (1964) casts the locomotive as the mechanical counterforce to the supposedly idyllic pastoral garden, but Brown replaces the train with the pickup truck as the iconic symbol of humans’ industrial intrusion into the natural world. For Brown, who has been called a writer of “grit lit” and “the King of White Trash” (Mort 833) the pickup truck is an appropriate vehicle to be loaded with symbolic meanings, and in addition to its role as pastoral counterforce the truck becomes a symbol of its owner, Joe Ransom. 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: 1 NumerousexamplesfromSouthernliteratureincludethenovelsofWilliamGilmore 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). 680 Christopher Rieger 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...

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Additional Information

ISSN
2689-517X
Print ISSN
0026-637X
Pages
pp. 679-694
Launched on MUSE
2020-02-27
Open Access
No
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