In Larry Brown’s Joe, many characters, including Joe and Wade, have attributes and actions that readers might dislike. Other characters, particularly the women, seem to serve a function in the narrative: sex, domestic work, and guidance. This journal will start by looking at hierarchal roles.
The first portrait readers get is “two girls and [a] woman” whose security is reduced to “paper sacks” that contain their “possessions” (Brown 1).
The women are not named until thirty-four pages later. The men, however, get names. The first male character readers meet is Wade, who is carrying nothing. Wade is the patriarch of the family, and he uses his voice and violence to keep this role.
Although Wade assumes this role, he does not do it too successfully because one daughter, Fay, becomes recalcitrant, stands up to him, and walks away from the family.
Wade’s son, Gary, does what he is told and does not stand up to his tyrannical father; however, as Gary becomes a member of society, he drifts away from Wade.
His wife, who I don’t think is ever given a name, refuses to embark out on her own, and she does all the traditionally female orientated work while her husband tries to provide food for the family.
The other male character, Joe, can be paralleled with Wade: both embody traditional gender hierarchies, both live outside the law, both like their alcohol, both are not hard workers.
Traditional gender structures, the male as dominate and the female as submissive, are apparent in this novel.
Readers first perceive Wade’s dominant role when he abuses his family members, supports the family with stolen money, refuses to engage in any type of work that would further the family.
Wade’s exists as the lazy, drunken tyrant. Wade is not the only male character who is dominant in situations; Joe upholds this gender structure too. Readers perceive the gender structure when Joe is ordering Connie to get him drinks and do domestic work, trying to give Charlotte money, giving his daughter money.
Even though Joe always has money, Joe is reluctant to do hard work in the field: “he lay down on the seat with his cap over his eyes and his feet out the door. Before many minutes had passed he was asleep” (Brown 23). This can be paralleled with Wade’s efficiency and work ethic: “it took one man working nearly full time just to keep this reluctant tree-killer watered,” (127) and when the boss is not around, he “stepped behind a bush and sat down” (Brown 128). Even though similarities exist, one substantial difference exits: Joe advocates capitalism.
Joe’s capitalist and hedonistic ways influence Gary. Gary starts the novel as a boy who rambles on edge of civilization with his family.
As the novel progresses, Gary becomes integrated into society: he secures a job, he establishes positive relations with people, he supports local businesses.
Gary’s main dilemma is that he can’t discern business from courtesy/ friendship. For Gary, everything is a business transaction; for example, when Gary is thirsty, he asks to buy a beer from Joe. Joe’s response, “Friends don’t buy things from one another” (Brown 259). Even though Joe utters this remark, he contradicts himself a couple sentences later because he still wants to sell the truck to Gary.
At the end of this conversation, readers learn that Gary serves as Joe’s confidant. Joe exposes to Gary that he spent time in jail once before for assaulting police officers. The noteworthy point is that “it wasn’t the first time...Probably won’t be the last” (Brown 253). Joe can’t escape his past actions, nor can he escape the mentality that he is recalcitrant in certain situations. Thus, when Joe takes the law into his own hands at the end of the novel, and Brown refuses to portray the consequences of his action, readers can assume Joe is affirming his statement that he’ll go back to jail.
Joe is not the only character that can’t escape his past; Gary is confronted with this problem too. The difference is that Gary’s last name is not favorable with some local people because his father tainted it. Gary finds this out when he is taking a break with a couple farmers who he is throwing hay for. The farmers learn that Gary is a Jones, and they don’t want to be associated with any Jones, so they pay Gary his money and take away his job. Even though Gary is a sovereign individual who is separate from his father, he can’t escape the past.
Finally, one thing is left to address in this journal: Brown likes to use participial phrases. The prolific use of these phrases draws attention to them, just as McCarthy’s minimal punctuation in Child of God and Joyce’s bizarre punctuation and spellings and anagrams in Finnegan’s Wake and Hemingway’s polysyndeton and parataxis in his novels. Brown’s participial phrases create a distinct voice for the narrator, but the most distinct voice in Brown’s fiction is the characters’ dialogue. No two characters sound the same. Whether Wade is lying to achieve his own ends, Joe is acting as boss, or Fay is being rebellious, each character is distinct.
There is one question left that I can’t answer. Why does Brown make so many references to Coke? Is he getting an endorsement from them?
Brown, Larry. Joe. New York: Warner Books, 1991.