A story: At a party on a pontoon boat, a guy works up the nerve to talk to a partially deaf woman who asks him to drive her somewhere else.
They swim to shore and get in his old Dodge Dart. Passing near the penitentiary, they pick up a hitchhiker. They stop for gas. The hitcher goes in and brutally holds up the cashier. The man and woman drive away in the Dart. It turns out to be their first date and they eventually get married. She gets pregnant, but a car accident puts her into a coma with baby in utero.
Another story: Four kids form a band for an eighth-grade dance. They manage to stay together through high school, after which they are signed to a major record label. The drummer defers his admission to an Ivy League college. Five years and many shows later, he calls the college and finds out his deferral, amazingly, hasn't expired. He graduates, then enters a top graduate school. His short stories attract an agent. He begins a novel and marries the daughter of one of the most successful writers in the town where he lives. On the day his wife goes into labor with their first child, his agent calls to inform him that he has sold both the short stories and the novel.
Which story is true?
The first is part of a new novel, called Doubles. The second is the condensed life story, so far, of Nic Brown, the man who wrote that novel.
Implausible? Coincidental? How about "karmic smackdown"?
Nic Brown of Chapel Hill—but not for much longer—used that phrase to describe his life, but he could have been talking about the plot of his debut novel, which just came out last week. The 33-year-old writer showed up for our interview fresh from playing tennis, but he was quick to distance himself from "Slow" Smith, the fictional world-class doubles player and protagonist of Doubles, the follow-up to Brown's lauded 2009 short-story collection, Floodmarkers. By turns trippy, tender and riotous, Doubles follows the washed-up, woozy Smith through his return to tennis, the ordeal of his wife's coma and his misadventures with his manager, his tennis partner and his high school crush and her ostensibly lesbian girlfriend. From Chapel Hill, Slow goes to New York City (there are also quick jaunts around the world for tournaments). He lives hard—perhaps like the rocker Brown once was—and then returns to Chapel Hill, if not wiser than certainly weightier.
But Slow Smith is not Nic Brown, who describes himself as an "avid mediocre tennis player." Slow's tennis-playing prowess is drawn from another source: Brown's friend Tripp Phillips, once a highly ranked doubles player (he reached the U.S. Open semifinals in 2006) who is now a tennis coach at UNC-Chapel Hill. "He's the reason I got obsessed," Brown says.
"I'm interested in people who are obsessive-compulsive hard workers, because I think I am one," Brown continues. "That's why world-class athletes interested me. I've been very lucky, but I've been lucky because some of that obsessive overachieving put me in a position to learn how to play drums well."
It also gave him material for Doubles. When Brown was 18, his Greensboro-based rock band, Athenaeum, was signed by Atlantic Records. The life of a musician and the life of an athlete have much in common: Armed with a rare and admired physical talent, you tour the world until the day you realize you've lost either the talent or the passion for it. You're then set adrift at an improbably early age.
"My relationship with my really close friends who were in a band with me could be transposed onto this tennis architecture," Brown says. That is perhaps why Slow's story is often bacchanalian as he lurches like a forgotten rock star from one antic set piece to the next.
There's another way Brown isn't like Slow Smith: When he was finished with the first set of his life, Brown got right to his serve on the next one. "Playing in a rock band, I would have weeks and sometimes months off between tours." So he wrote, which he'd always wanted to do. From Columbia University, he went to the famed Iowa Writers' Workshop. A few years ago, he moved back to Chapel Hill, where he worked as the director of communications at the Ackland Art Museum. He wrote Doubles from 5–7 every morning before work. Brown married Abby, the daughter of local novelist Daniel Wallace, who became a valued reader of Brown's work.
"I've definitely had a charmed few years," Brown says. "But I worked my tail off to write these books." And as befits any overachiever, he isn't about to stop. At the end of July, he and his family will move to Fort Collins, Colo., where Brown will take a job at the University of Northern Colorado—"U.N.C.," he points out.
"I'm really excited to have more time to write," he says. But Brown's new beginning, like Slow Smith's at the end of Doubles, is tinged with loss, another karmic smackdown. "I'm ecstatic about the job," Brown says. "And heartbroken about leaving Chapel Hill."