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“Brilliant . . . Larry Brown has slapped his own fresh tattoo on the big right arm of Southern Lit.” ―The Washington Post Book World

Now a major motion picture starring Nicolas Cage, directed by David Gordon Green.

Joe Ransom is a hard-drinking ex-con pushing fifty who just won’t slow down--not in his pickup, not with a gun, and certainly not with women. Gary Jones estimates his own age to be about fifteen. Born luckless, he is the son of a hopeless, homeless wandering family, and he’s desperate for a way out. When their paths cross, Joe offers him a chance just as his own chances have dwindled to almost nothing. Together they follow a twisting map to redemption--or ruin.

Review

"With this powerful novel of poverty-mired Mississippi... Brown comes into his own, illuminating the painful lives of his characters with compassion and eloquence." ―Publishers Weekly

"Bright with pain and liquor, this raw and gritty novel ranks with the best hard-knocks, down-and-out work of Jim Thompson and Harry Crews. It''s lean, mean, and original." ―Kirkus Reviews

"Larry Brown is establishing himself as one of the most authentic literary voices of our generation. It''s a voice framed, as many great voices have been, in the inflections of the South. It''s a voice as true as a gun rack, unpretentious and uncorrupted, full of wit and sorrow." ―Baltimore Evening Sun

From the Back Cover

“Brilliant . . . Larry Brown has slapped his own fresh tattoo on the big right arm of Southern Lit.” ―The Washington Post Book World

Joe Ransom is a hard-drinking ex-con pushing fifty who just won’t slow down--not in his pickup, not with a gun, and certainly not with women. Gary Jones estimates his own age to be about fifteen. Born luckless, he is the son of a hopeless, homeless wandering family, and he’s desperate for a way out. When their paths cross, Joe offers him a chance just as his own chances have dwindled to almost nothing. Together they follow a twisting map to redemption--or ruin.
 
“Literature of the first order . . . Powerful stuff spun by a sure, patient hand . . . His characters just are. They call to mind the Joads in John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath and the pictures and people in James Agee’s and Walker Evans’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. It is an understated, powerful, beautiful evocation of a place, a time, a people. It is a book that will last.” ―Detroit Free Press

“Luminescent prose tempered by wit.” ―The New York Times Book Review

“Sinewy and lyrical.” ―Los Angeles Times

“Brown compels our admiration, Joe himself makes us care.” ―Newsweek

About the Author

Larry Brown was born in Lafayette County, Mississippi, where he lived all his life. At the age of thirty, a captain in the Oxford Fire Department, he decided to become a writer and worked toward that goal for seven years before publishing his first book, Facing the Music, a collection of stories, in 1988. With the publication of his first novel, Dirty Work, he quit the fire station in order to write full time. (The nonfiction book  On Fire tells the story of his many years as a firefighter.) Between then and his untimely death in 2004, he published seven more books. He was awarded the Mississippi Institute of Arts and Letters award for fiction and was the first two-time winner of the Southern Book Award for Fiction, which he won in 1992 for  Joe, and again in 1997 for Father and Son. He was the recipient of a Lila Wallace-Readers Digest Award and Mississippi''s Governor''s Award For Excellence in the Arts. The story "Big Bad Love" became the basis for a feature film, as did his novel Joe

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4.2 out of 54.2 out of 5
210 global ratings

Top reviews from the United States

panton41
4.0 out of 5 starsVerified Purchase
A wonderful and ugly book
Reviewed in the United States on October 22, 2018
I read this not because of the movie, but because I read Fay - the sort of sequel - about a decade ago and wanted to know more about her story. To paraphrase a Monty Python sketch, this isn''t a book for reading, this a book for laying down and avoiding. It was beautifully... See more
I read this not because of the movie, but because I read Fay - the sort of sequel - about a decade ago and wanted to know more about her story. To paraphrase a Monty Python sketch, this isn''t a book for reading, this a book for laying down and avoiding. It was beautifully written, the language evocative of the characters and setting and despite their often deep and quite literally fatal flaws you can''t help but feel attached to the characters.

But, boy is the story ugly. It''s about abject poverty in the Deep South during the 1980s, alcoholism and everything those two bring. The story doesn''t quite reach a traditional climax and denouement, it just kind of ends when it ends and lets you know the story''s over. (For that matter I don''t think the story quite has the normal beats and complication every 25% typical of fiction.)

People who read a lot talk about having a "book hangover" which for most books is closer to a nice afterglow after a pleasant evening with their preferred gender. Finishing this book is more like drinking a fifth of Jim Beam, getting in a bar fight with three big guys, kind of forgetting what happened after that and waking up in jail the next day. (Which pretty well sums of half the book.)
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fra7299
2.0 out of 5 starsVerified Purchase
I''ll just stick with Faulkner, Steinbeck, or McCarthy, thanks.
Reviewed in the United States on October 23, 2020
I’m sure that there is a moral here about a young boy named Gary’s fate, but I’m not sticking around to find out. I got up to a little past two hundred pages, and I’m out. I’ve read books with raw, low-life type characters and lowly life situations before, but... See more
I’m sure that there is a moral here about a young boy named Gary’s fate, but I’m not sticking around to find out. I got up to a little past two hundred pages, and I’m out.

I’ve read books with raw, low-life type characters and lowly life situations before, but this one just is not a kind of book I want to put that much effort into right now and I think it’s primarily because of how everything is handled by the author. (This was my second read from Brown, read “Big Bad Love” and it was so so to me).

This book is populated with some of the most degenerate characters and uncomfortable situations one could experience in a book. And I know that Brown was trying to keep these types of individuals real and authentic to their settings, but I got a little sick of the language like every other line in the book and it was a tad excessive/unnecessary.

At a certain point when one of the characters does a despicable thing (which happens quite frequently in the book, but this was the final straw), I called it day, cried uncle, said “why bother?” and closed the book for the final time. As the often quoted phrase to literary enthusiasts, “too many books, too little time.”

For my money, there are novelists who better at depicting human depravity and harshness and bringing it to light in a realist way without an overabundance of offensive situations/characters/language/verbal/psychological abuse on repeat (Steinbeck, Faulkner, McCarthy come to mind). I guess this author’s style is just not my thing.

Yet, there are a few sections where I felt there was something there and I felt invested in the young boy and his fate at points. But those were rare and fleeting moments. Everything else was pretty forgettable to me. So three stars for certain sections, one star for the rest of the book.

I know a lot of people love this book, but I was pretty underwhelmed.
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Killer Is Me
3.0 out of 5 starsVerified Purchase
I really wanted to like this book...
Reviewed in the United States on July 11, 2020
I had a hard time getting started with Joe, putting it aside a few times then picking it back up and starting over. When I finally managed to get past the first 15 or 20 pages the book started to pick up good momentum, but then it kind of reaches a set speed and just stays... See more
I had a hard time getting started with Joe, putting it aside a few times then picking it back up and starting over. When I finally managed to get past the first 15 or 20 pages the book started to pick up good momentum, but then it kind of reaches a set speed and just stays there. It doesn''t get any more interesting and it doesn''t get any less interesting. It''s just anecdotes with no plot. The writing itself is very good for the most part but the story is missing structure and direction. Events take place, then other events, and so on until it eventually ends, or I should actually say "dead ends". That said I see why so many reviewers enjoyed the book because it''s easy to read, but after investing time in it and anticipating it would reach some sort of climactic ending tying all the anecdotes together and then it just...doesn''t...I was disappointed. The tacked on epilogue resolved nothing and I thought maybe I had missed some deeper meaning but after thinking about this for a few days I''ve come to the conclusion that Mr. Brown simply wrote until he was either out of ideas or he tired of writing and he just quit.

You may like Mr. Brown''s writing style and his vivid description of Mississippi poor white trash life, and if that''s what is most important to you your review will undoubtedly have more stars than mine, but if you are interested more in compelling characters and a story that draws you in and moves you forward to a satisfying conclusion you won''t find that in Joe.
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eclectic reader
5.0 out of 5 starsVerified Purchase
The reality grabs and won''t let go
Reviewed in the United States on January 17, 2021
I discovered Larry Brown a few weeks ago and I guess several years ago. I was cleaning out my bookshelves and found father and son. I had bought it several years ago. Perhaps because of the jacket blurbs, perhaps because of the sellers recommendation. I always buy more than... See more
I discovered Larry Brown a few weeks ago and I guess several years ago. I was cleaning out my bookshelves and found father and son. I had bought it several years ago. Perhaps because of the jacket blurbs, perhaps because of the sellers recommendation. I always buy more than I can read. Now age prompts me to begin setting my shelves in order. Fortunately the clutter of ebooks is easier to ignore. But from time to time I discovered old treasures. Larry Brown is one of those. I thank my younger self for the impulsive purchase.
What makes a book great or memorable? The ability of the author to express his or her insight into the world clearly and with great impact.
Larry Brown died of a heart attack while still very young. Perhaps the world was too much with him. Thankfully he left treasure behind.
There is no shining armor in this tale. But certainly armor is needed.
Joe has heart and Joe has character. He is deeply flawed as well. Perhaps that makes meeting him on paper more comfortable. Somehow he makes the world a much better place.
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B. McConn
5.0 out of 5 starsVerified Purchase
Joe is an Unlikely Hero
Reviewed in the United States on June 30, 2018
Joe, a divorced alcoholic, gambler and ex con who openly shows his disdain for the law turns out to be an unlikely father figure to a young man, Gary, who is growing up in about as dysfunctional a family as one could imagine. The writing style is phenomenal and the... See more
Joe, a divorced alcoholic, gambler and ex con who openly shows his disdain for the law turns out to be an unlikely father figure to a young man, Gary, who is growing up in about as dysfunctional a family as one could imagine.
The writing style is phenomenal and the author makes you care. It is a book that I recommend. Thank you.
4 people found this helpful
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Lesley Jenkins
4.0 out of 5 starsVerified Purchase
"Ah, Andy Capp, you Wife-Beating Drunk!"
Reviewed in the United States on September 23, 2016
There is a moment in The Simpsons when Homer chuckles at a cartoon, "Ah Andy Capp, you wife-beating drunk!" Homer might have found Wade Jones, the primary wife-beating drunk in Larry Brown''s "Joe" amusing too, until Wade stabbed him for his blue trousers.... See more
There is a moment in The Simpsons when Homer chuckles at a cartoon, "Ah Andy Capp, you wife-beating drunk!" Homer might have found Wade Jones, the primary wife-beating drunk in Larry Brown''s "Joe" amusing too, until Wade stabbed him for his blue trousers. Wade drags his starving family - down to five now (we know what happened to baby Calvin, but what happened to the other four children?) - through the snake-ridden backwoods of Mississippi. We''re soon down to four - Gary''s sister takes to her father with a slab of wood and walks out of the family into Larry''s fabulous, "Fay".

Joe Ransom sleeps in the cab of his car while the team of derelicts he hires daily stalk the vicious undergrowth, killing trees. When not sleeping (say when it is raining too hard to poison anything), or in the lock-up, Joe spends much of his time drive-drinking. That is, he does some hours of his beer and whisky swilling while behind the wheel.

Joe is empathetic and moral (relatively speaking). Against all odds (certainly genetics) Wade''s son Gary has ambition, family feeling and an innate sense of decency. So, this being a Larry Brown novel and therefore a tad on the sentimental side, the two are bound to meet. Joe hires father and son for a day.

"Joe dropped these two off last of all. He pulled up at the entrance to their road and shut off the truck. He took a quick drink of the hot whisky on the seat and shivered, then got out and walked to the back and peered into the camper. The boy was helping his father crawl across the spare tires, the poison gun and jugs, this elder moaning on all fours like a political prisoner newly released from a dungeon. He stood eyeing them and took off his cap. He knew the boy would work - he''d proven that - but the old man would hold him back. He swept one hand through his thick hair and resettled his cap and put his hands on the side of the truck.

''Can you make it out of there?'' he said. He lit a cigarette.

''Aw. Yeah. I''ll make it, I guess,'' Wade whispered. ''Just help me over to the tailgate, son,'' he said in a broken voice. The boy had him by the arm, guiding him along. Joe watched him dispassionately and knew almost certainly that whatever the boy made, the old man would take it from him. Probably every penny. He quickly figured in his head what he owed them, and had the money ready by the time the old man swung his legs over the tailgate. He counted it again and laid it down.

''What?'' said Wade. He picked up his money. ''You pay ever day?''

''Naw,'' said Joe. ''I don''t need y''all back no more. That''s yours there, son'' he said, nodding at the remaining bills.

''Well,'' Wade said, that that was all he said. Gary picked up his money and looked at it. Then he looked at Joe."

Brown describes his poor, sodden characters'' every move with their own sweaty closeness. Like Socrates, he tells us what they do, not what they think as they crawl along relentlessly to nowhere, It''s nowhere, but we know it isn''t going to be good. And like the cottonmouths of Mississippi, Brown''s people move slowly until they strike.
2 people found this helpful
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C. Jones
4.0 out of 5 starsVerified Purchase
but beautifully written by
Reviewed in the United States on January 31, 2017
This was a book club selection that was based on a recommendation by my daughter, a student of southern literature. It is disturbing in content, but beautifully written by, what my daughter stated, was a completely self taught author. He pulls you into the story with his... See more
This was a book club selection that was based on a recommendation by my daughter, a student of southern literature. It is disturbing in content, but beautifully written by, what my daughter stated, was a completely self taught author. He pulls you into the story with his wonderfully descriptive narrative. Most of the readers gave it an 8 out of 10 for Larry Browns writing, but gave it much lower scores for the disturbing story line. Most of us thought the story was about the great depression at the beginning of the book, but came to realize it was probably set in the 80''s or 90''s. It is a slice of the raw "rough south" that many of us are completely blind to. Tremendous poverty, drunken violence, homelessness, hunger and the struggle to break free. It left us covered in a film of grief and on my part guilt also. Knowing that these conditions continue to exist in this great nation is heart breaking, but knowing what to do about it is the real difficulty. Joe, in his own flawed way, moves through his life riding the line, doing his best to help others while battling his own demons. This is not a book for the faint of heart. It is a book for those willing to explore other cultures, and expand their understanding of the the lives of those barely managing to stay alive, written in a way that makes you feel it. None of us walked away unchanged.
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Joyce Metzger
5.0 out of 5 starsVerified Purchase
No Heroes, Just Hard Knocks
Reviewed in the United States on July 6, 2014
Gary Jones was older in body and mind than his fifteen actual years. His life, and that of his mother and sisters, were long trails of misery, dark places, hunger, deprivation, and physical beatings. All he wanted from life was enough food to have strength enough to work.... See more
Gary Jones was older in body and mind than his fifteen actual years. His life, and that of his mother and sisters, were long trails of misery, dark places, hunger, deprivation, and physical beatings. All he wanted from life was enough food to have strength enough to work. He had never had new clothes or shoes. He knew all about dumpster diving. He was skinny and haggard, but he would trudge through miles of mud to work. Maybe one day, he thought, then crushed the still born idea before it was birthed.
Wade Jones was an itinerant drifter, a surly derelict. He cared for nothing except food, booze and smokes. He cared for no one except himself. He would steal, lie, cheat, con, and murder to achieve his daily bottle of liquor. He walked through each day in a daze, using and abusing his family, living on an unearned entitlement.
Joe Ransom, was a divorced, hard drinking foreman of a group of black labourers who poisoned trees. Joe''s mental torments are balanced by his ability to understand others needs, then to act with kind compassion. The foreshadow of an inevitable showdown urges the reader forward.
Angels come in many guises. Wade Jones has been painted dark gray to black. A saviour is needed for this trod upon family. A bond has been forged, the links are strong, and the arms are willing to lift those who have only known grinding poverty and despair.
Larry Brown has written a masterful, gut-wrenching novel in a simple, easy to understand, page turner style. This book is mesmerizing. Thank you.
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Top reviews from other countries

Paul Harris
5.0 out of 5 starsVerified Purchase
Highly recommended!
Reviewed in the United Kingdom on February 6, 2015
The promise, style, and searing power of Brown''s earlier works: two short story collections ("Facing The Music" & "Big Bad Love"), and the stunning debut novel about wounded Vietnam veterans ("Dirty Work") would have been hard to improve upon. But...See more
The promise, style, and searing power of Brown''s earlier works: two short story collections ("Facing The Music" & "Big Bad Love"), and the stunning debut novel about wounded Vietnam veterans ("Dirty Work") would have been hard to improve upon. But Brown has quite possibly done so with the superb Joe. This is my first ''5-star'' novel of the year (in November!) as it is in my opinion without fault and perfect in every way. Set once again in the small towns of northern Mississippi that Brown knew so well, and amid the dense woods, fishing lakes, and dusty roads of the rural back country, the characters so expertly crafted by Brown are joined by the richly drawn characterisation of the landscape itself that they inhabit. I''ve not yet ever visited the United States, but thanks to Larry''s writing I feel as though I know this part of the world really quite well! Joe is a middle-aged divorcee who makes a living as a seasonal forestry contractor. He runs a gang of casual black labourers and they are usually either poisoning the trees in the summer before a clear-fell, or planting up whips in the winter. Joe spends his money on drinking and gambling and girlfriends, and not too much else. He does love his adult children, and wants to help them as well, though things are never straightforward. We are drawn deep into Joe''s life, as one summer progresses. He has encountered Gary Jones, a boy aged "about 15" who wants to work. Gary''s family are itinerant and poor - the father is about as despicable a character as you could ever have the misfortune to encounter. The old storekeeper knows him from something some time long ago... One of Gary''s sisters - Fay - will be the subject of a different and later novel by Brown, as she manages to leave her no good family behind her early in the book''s pages. In the meantime, the depiction of "the old man" is about as chilling and real and unforgettable as Dickens'' terrible Bill Sykes. Yes, as diabolical as that. Gary is determined to break free from his ne''er-do-well father''s clutches and if he can just earn (and keep hidden) enough money to buy a truck, then he could be free. What follows is about as heartbreaking and engrossing a tale I have read. Despite his protagonist''s many shortcomings, Brown shows us that there is a tenderness to a man like Joe that most won''t ever see. This is a story about attempts at redemption and dignity as much as one of life''s disappointments and tragedies. As the novel progresses the tension and the drama builds subtly like the flavours of a simmering stew. The end result is a story whose traces will remain visible in the mind for a long time, and characters that I will never forget. There is grit and poverty, and heartache, but there is so much beauty in this writing to behold. Highly recommended.
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Mr. R. Stanton
4.0 out of 5 starsVerified Purchase
Deep South
Reviewed in the United Kingdom on August 24, 2016
This is a slow building story set in the deep south that follows one bad man as he tries to avoid the police, reconnect with his estranged wife, make some money and look out for one little boy who is controlled by an abusive father. The author brings to life the landscape...See more
This is a slow building story set in the deep south that follows one bad man as he tries to avoid the police, reconnect with his estranged wife, make some money and look out for one little boy who is controlled by an abusive father. The author brings to life the landscape and the characters brilliantly, none of whom are easy to like. There is a sense of forboding throughout and this eventually comes to a head in a shocking and brilliantly written conclusion. Well worth reading.
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skyranger_of_utopia
5.0 out of 5 starsVerified Purchase
No Ordinary Joe
Reviewed in the United Kingdom on August 23, 2017
Love this moving tale set in a humid South of the US. The characters of Joe, the boy Gary and his despicable father Wade are alive on the page. Will check out other Larry Brown books after this brilliant novel, which was recommended to me by friends, entertained all the way.
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sandra k chung
5.0 out of 5 starsVerified Purchase
Thank you
Reviewed in the United Kingdom on April 26, 2021
Great story
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OJ
5.0 out of 5 starsVerified Purchase
Read it!
Reviewed in the United Kingdom on July 14, 2021
Beautifully written, evocative portrayal of tough southern lives
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