A Miracle of Catfish
By Larry Brown
Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 456 pp.
Was Larry Brown putting us on? An eyebrow lifts at "Aw, I'm just a common man who was real lucky to find out what I wanted to do with my life." That throwaway interview comment wasn't false modesty, but it wasn't quite true modesty either. Plenty of would-be writers never write. Brown put a poker-faced mask on his mortal, deep and undeterred sense of destiny.
Brown was still fulfilling that destiny when he died in his Mississippi home of a sudden heart attack in November 2004 at age 53. There's something of destiny, too, in his early death: a hint of the self-sabotage, the incompletion, the sudden and ruinous injury, the striving but falling short, that bedevil so many of the characters in his work—especially in his last and, fittingly, unfinished novel, A Miracle of Catfish.
It's tempting, with Algonquin's posthumous publication, to glamorize Brown. He was beloved of rock musicians and died young like one; and, at least geographically and dipsomaniacally, he was the literary heir of William Faulkner. Brown was the featured writer at this year's Oxford Conference for the Book, which installed him in the canon of revered Southern authors (Flannery O'Connor, Walker Percy) usually honored there. This year's main event was a memorial barroom rock show, a hootenanny that included a performance by North Carolina's own Clyde Edgerton, a friend of Brown's. In May, Bloodshot Records will release a tribute CD featuring performances by a passel of Y'Allternative rockers, including Brown himself—it seems fitting that Brown and alt-country both reached their peak visibility in the late 1990s.
But a read of A Miracle of Catfish dries out the boozy romance of Brown's life, and it cuts off and through any attempts at sentimentalizing his work. The book is laden with vividly recounted doings of everyday life, told in simple language with vigorous rhythm. And here again is some dissemblance, more of it probably Brown's admirers' than his own: He was hailed as an avatar of a genre dubbed "grit lit," and a documentary about him, by Tar Heel filmmaker Gary Hawkins, was called The Rough South of Larry Brown, but his prose only looks rough and gritty. It is in fact literature: carefully hewn and finely honed, long but lean, muscular and assured, and almost hummably musical.
This isn't and can't be a review of A Miracle of Catfish. Although Brown left a cursory outline of his plans for the book's final chapters—it is printed as the novel's last page—we don't know whether he would have changed those plans or revised what he had already written. Also, Brown's longtime editor at Algonquin, Shannon Ravenel, has judiciously trimmed his 710-page manuscript. The novel reads smoothly and briskly in her rendering. Brown was apparently accommodating and appreciative of Ravenel's suggestions, and she has inserted ellipses to indicate her cuts. But we don't know what she has omitted, nor at which omissions Brown might have demurred. This publication is probably the closest we can come to his novel without him, but it can't exactly be called his novel.
There are traces of Southern Gothic in A Miracle of Catfish, but it has none of Faulkner's portentous oratorio. It is built on Brown's close, ground-level observance of his characters' daily lives. He follows them around—gets right up inside their heads—while they shop for groceries, go to happy hour, try to feed crumpled dollars into soda machines, drive aimlessly around back roads drinking beer (something Brown did a lot of himself), smoke countless cigarettes (ditto). One of Brown's great gifts is his upkeep of momentum and interest in even the least of actions.
But he has a second and more pressing agenda. Part of Brown's legend, to go along with the hard-drinking, Rough South mythology, includes his 17-year career as a firefighter. (He quit in 1990 to write full time.) Firefighters live for emergencies, of course, and in A Miracle of Catfish, so does Brown. After hanging around his characters while they kill time like firemen do, he flings them suddenly into crises. Usually they fail. Simple procedures like changing a tire or mowing grass cause catastrophes—some comical, some gruesome, some comically gruesome.
A Miracle of Catfish is a thoroughly masculine, even macho book, suffused with traditional Southern male life. Brown probes the minds of animals—braggart crows, adventurous puppies, timid deer—almost as deeply as he does women's. And there yet again is the whiff of a put-on. Are Southern men really like this anymore? Is it all alcohol and sex and secrets and guns?
No, emphatically, it's not. Just like Peter Rabbit, the precocious puppy in A Miracle of Catfish, Brown so faithfully tracks the data of life—fishing, watching TV, going to the hardware store, driving, microwaving lunch in the break room—that any hint of posturing vanishes. And what really drives home Brown's integrity is the book's most ardent character, a 9-year-old boy named Jimmy. Jimmy lives in archetypal trailer-trash neglect and squalor: mean older half-sisters, a distracted mom, a violently temperamental dad. (Is this yet another spoof, you may wonder?) But Jimmy is somehow turning out well. He tries to keep quiet so as not to enrage his father—Brown calls him only "Jimmy's daddy," never by his name; he teaches himself to fish; he doesn't complain about his painfully rotting teeth; he protects his catty, foul-mouthed half-sisters from his parents' wrath. So when Jimmy's daddy attempts a fitful reform, grasping against his instincts for honorable fatherhood, you can't help rooting for him—and for Jimmy, who deserves better. By bringing clarity, complexity and surprising affection to their relationship, Brown redeems the titular promise of his 1996 novel Father and Son, and builds a real moral foundation.
More than once in A Miracle of Catfish we pass by anonymous men down in ditches at roadside, collecting cans. Brown gives this image an existential feel: This is the lowest a soul can go. What gives his characters life and sympathy is their refusal to fall into that ditch. They may fail, they may be forever doomed by broken pasts and present misfortunes, or doom themselves, but they keep trying to avoid that ditch and its trash—they're trying to live well. There's nothing put-on about that.