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Books

A Miracle of Catfish by Larry Brown

Mary McCoy

Without an ending, or even a strong central plot, Brown's last novel still ranks among his greatest.


A Miracle of Catfish

Publisher: Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill
ISBN: 1565125363
Author: Larry Brown
Price: $24.95
Length: 455
Formats: Hardcover
US publication date: 2007-03
UK publication date: 2007-03
Amazon

Over the course of his writing career, Larry Brown was known for gritty, uncompromising accounts of rural Southern living. His books were filled with big, bad redneck mommas and their hard-drinking, day-laboring men; paycheck to paycheck living; big trucks, cold beer, trailer parks, and bad cuts of meat.

But that's only one side of the story, a rough caricature of Brown's writing and its place in the Southern literary canon.

Larry Brown's own story as a writer is a legendary one at this point. A small town fire chief, he set out to become a writer at the age of 30, and gradually, got good at it. In his touching and hilarious introduction to A Miracle of Catfish, Barry Hannah says that Brown's early attempts at fiction were so bad, he'd sneak out the back door of the bar when he saw him approaching with "the inevitable manila envelop." But Brown never rested on laurels after he published. As much as there's an idea of the "Larry Brown story," each of his books attempts feats the previous ones didn't, and very often, pull them off.

Brown was a master of characterization, of exploring the lives of those to whom little happens, and teasing out their personal hells and hopes. His last work represents the pinnacle of that craft.

One week before his death in 2004, Brown sent the nearly finished manuscript for A Miracle of Catfish to his agent. At the request of Brown's widow, Shannon Ravenel of Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, the longtime publisher of Brown's work, agreed to edit the unfinished novel. Though Ravenel did make cuts to the 710 page manuscript, she decided that "making any changes -- substantive or minor -- to the plot, the structure, the characterizations, would be inappropriate." As a result, A Miracle of Catfish ends where Brown left it, along with his notes, sketching out the final chapters.

The book follows a year in the intertwined lives of characters living outside of Oxford, Mississippi. Most intriguing is Cortez Sharp, a former Klansman who traded in his bedsheets for a less organized kind of hatred and meanness. There's murder in his past, he hasn't touched his wife in years, and his children are all either dead or estranged. Yet there's also something in Sharp that yearns for human connection in his old age. As he digs a catfish pond on his property and waits for rain, he imagines that his daughter, Lucinda, will return home, or that the neglected neighbor boy, Jimmy, might stop by some afternoon with his rod and reel. Brown frequently depicts him fumbling towards the nearest approximations of kindness he can muster, and in these moments, Sharp becomes a difficult character to settle one's mind about.

Less complex, but equally interesting is Jimmy's daddy (called only that throughout the book). With his penchant for drinking, philandering, and riding around, Jimmy's daddy is a familiar character in Brown's literary world, an unlovable and unlovely loser. However, Jimmy's daddy takes sorry blood to a level far beyond any of Brown's previous characters. He fails at marriage, fatherhood, and work, but he's bad at his hobbies, too. What makes the character most pathetic is the fact he really tries to do well, particularly where Jimmy is concerned. However, a new go-kart purchased for Jimmy turns out to be a lemon; an attempt to take the boy out to the local swap meet ends in a DUI. A kind of Charlie Brown gone to seed, everything Jimmy's daddy touches turns to mud in his hands.

Poised tenuously between childhood wonder and resigned mistrust, Jimmy's story occupies the heart of the book. He's a good boy who can't possibly remain one much longer, surrounded by an indifferent mother, two vicious older sisters, and of course, his no good daddy. Although he's accepted certain truths about his family, Jimmy hasn't hardened yet, and his decency and naivete are so endearing, you pull for him, celebrate his small triumphs, and mostly, worry about him a lot.

The book is a sprawling Southern epic that unfolds mostly in the minds of its characters, which doesn't sound like a good thing, but is. In her introduction, Ravenel says of Brown's writing, "Having honed his skills on the short-story form, he reveled in the wide spaces that novels offer." While his early books featured strong dialogue and lean prose, Brown stretches his legs in A Miracle of Catfish, unfolding lush Mississippi landscapes and inventive histories for his characters. Though the story Brown tells here isn't a happy one, you'll be surprised how prettily it rolls off the page.

However, it's Brown's characters and their day-to-day struggles that ultimately carry the day. Brown never flinches when detailing the ugliness of the thoughts and burdens they carry, until the ugliness falls away, replaced by something immediately recognizable and sympathetic. Without an ending, or even a strong central plot, Brown's last novel still ranks among his greatest.

Larry Brown was a huge music fan, and the love went both ways. On 22 May 2007, Bloodshot Records will release Just One More: A Musical Tribute to Larry Brown, featuring previously unreleased tracks by Alejandro Escovedo, Jim Dickinson, and Robert Earl Keen.

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