Joe by Larry Brown (1991) before we saw the recent David Gordon Green movie staring Nicholas Cage. Alas, the size of my reading pile bit me in the ass and I didn't end up reading it until a couple of months after we saw the movie. Lucky for me this is one of those rare cases where both the movie and the book are great, but in slightly different ways, so experiencing one before the other doesn't put you at a disadvantage.
Joe is almost fifty, divorced, a serious drinker, done hard time. He has hit an equilibrium in his life that involves working a crew of men in seasonal work to kill second growth forest and replace it with high dollar pine trees. It also involves a lot of gambling, drinking, driving around in his truck, and, occasionally, making really bad decisions.
Gary and his family walk into town carrying all their possessions and dragging along his mean drunk of a father. They come across a long-abandoned house in the country and decide to stay. To support his mother and mute sister, Gary picks up cans and tries to get odd jobs. He doesn't really know how old he is, but he says he's fifteen. He ends up working on Joe's tree-killing crew and Joe takes an interest in seeing that the kid is okay. That's pretty hard to do when a kid is in a situation like Gary's.
This is a rough book: a mix of almost poetic observations on the Mississippi countryside combined with sudden violence, harsh reality, and crushing, honestly rendered poverty. All the people in Joe are broken: some of them turned out to be made of mean pieces, others to be made of mostly good pieces. There are no real happy endings in this book. There are small victories and tiny pleasures, but there isn't any real salvation or redemption, no real way to dig yourself out of the hole you were born in (or that you dug yourself). This is a wonderfully written novel, filled with perfect dialogue and moving descriptions, and readers shouldn't let themselves be turned off by the sad storyline. This is the first Larry Brown novel I've read, and I can't wait to read more.
[p.s. The movie is great too!]