Return to Erin O'Brien

Brown was a mentor, comfort to writer


Brown was a mentor, comfort to writer

Sunday, December 19, 2004
by Erin Nowjack

Special to the Plain Dealer

He has been called the king of grit-lit. His writing is noted for booze, sex, violence and his rough depiction of the American South.

My Larry Brown is different.

Ten years ago, I lost my brother, John O'Brien, to suicide. Among the things he left behind was the novel "Leaving Las Vegas." Although the film deal was well under way when he died, John would not live to see his characters glitter on the silver screen.

Unable to open the cover of "Leaving Las Vegas" in those first black months, I reread books John had given me: Frederick Exley's "A Fan's Notes," Richard Ford's "The Sportswriter." I reread "American Psycho."

It wasn't enough.

So I dutifully listened to the music of Bob Dylan again and again, as John once had advised me to do. I flailed, searching for a feckless, elusive answer.

Late in 1995, the movie debuted, and the word "bittersweet" turned into a terrible acrid thing in the center of my chest. I answered every letter our family received about the movie and about John's life. One came from a Hollywood bartender who had served John countless drinks, and in him I found a new pen pal.

In 1996, I finally went through John's unpublished manuscripts. My father was silently thankful. "The Assault on Tony's," to which I contributed one chapter and an afterword, was published in 1996. "Stripper Lessons" came out a year later.

Having exhausted words and music, I still felt empty. I picked up "Leaving Las Vegas." Instead of opening it, I turned it over and found more authors to conquer, those whose sound-bite reviews stared up at me.

Including Larry Brown.

It was his first novel, "Dirty Work," that gripped me. In it, Brown tells the story of two tragic Vietnam vets: one who lost his face to the war, the other his limbs. There is a scarred and burned woman. There is booze. Amid this bleakness, Brown manages to achieve tenderness. And humor. And humanity.

I already had begun to do my own writing and was flattened with awe. I devoured the rest of Brown's books. The more I read, the more it fueled my curiosity about him and his relationship with John. Two and a half years after my brother punctuated his life with a single bullet, I wrote Brown a letter.

A month later, I pulled a standard white envelope from the mailbox.

"I did know John, and he did know my work," Brown wrote. "Just keep faith in yourself and keep on writing. That's what John had to do, too."

Thus began a six-year correspondence. I was the neophyte; Brown was my mentor. When the harsh reality of writing would crush me, I'd write him.

"Much as I've written, I'm still scared of it in some way until I sit down and start doing it again and then all the fear goes out the window and I feel safe," he wrote once.

In all, Brown wrote me five letters, and I wrote him 10. Our unique relationship included one face-to-face meeting. In September 2003, driven by an undeniable urgency, I took a frenetic 700-mile road trip to hear him read at a bookstore in Louisville, Ky.

He looked tired. There were about 20 people there, a surprisingly staid group. He did his reading and answered mundane questions. "Yes," he assured one woman, "I write every day."

People lined up to have their books signed. After everyone cleared out, I approached him. "It's Erin," I said. "I'm Erin."

He inflated with recognition. "Oh, Erin," he said as he stood, "after all these years."

A genuine smile spread over his face, and he embraced me with a tenderness I will never forget.

The letter I wrote him after that trip was funny and sad and honest. "I am the only O'Brien left," I wrote. "I cling tenaciously to the fine threads that connect me to the ones to whom I've said goodbye. I think of you that way, a subtle and significant tether between John and me. That I can read your words and write you letters and drive to Louisville to verify that, yes, you are alive and real and breathing are not things I take for granted."

My strange urgency to meet my hero turned out to be prophetic. Thirteen months later, Brown was dead. Upon hearing the news, I gathered all our letters and reread them chronologically. I expected to get teary reading Brown's installments but instead found myself crying over my own. There I was, vulnerable and immature and getting thrashed around by life. And there was Brown, taking on the role of older brother with sensitivity and indulgence.

"I went through the same thing, felt the same things, and I do know how tough it is," Brown wrote in April 2002. "I'll bet John's advice to you would have been along the lines of just telling you that if you wanted it bad enough, to just keep at it. I know that don't sound like much, but that pretty much sums it up."

My father died suddenly on Oct. 25, 2002. With the number of men to whom I desperately wanted to prove myself lessened by one, I wrote Brown. "Before you go and die, I'll send you my first published fiction clip," I threatened. "Hence, if you'll quit smoking and live for a little while longer, that'd be a help in achieving at least one of my pathetic goals."

Brown is gone. The gift of what transpired between us is not. My first novel, "Harvey and Eck," is scheduled for publication in August. I will not be able to hand a copy to my brother or to my dad or to Brown.

Uncomfortable with absolutes such as heaven, hell and the insidious purgatory, I instead will imagine Brown making a guest appearance in my egocentric Dead Guy Theater, where my life is the constant feature presentation. I imagine John and Dad are joined there by all of my grandparents and a cousin who died at 33.

There sit my dead guys, watching me with rapt attention and grandly nodding their heads in approval of my every move. Perhaps Brown will take a seat next to my brother John on the day I receive the first copy of my book. They will smile and watch on as I lift it from the box and hold it in my hands.

(c) 2004 The Plain Dealer. Used with permission.

Return to Erin O'Brien