|LARRY BROWN (Tom Rankin)|
A Miracle of Catfish
By Larry Brown
ALongonuin Books of Chapel Hill, 455 pp., $24.95
In her editor's note to Larry Brown's sprawling, posthumous novel (Brown died in 2004) , Shannon Ravenel calls the book "all but completed," which is, I think, a less than forthright estimate and does a disservice to the author. Ravenel appends a few sketchy lines of Brown's notes to the end of the book. The comments tentatively address the action to follow, but raise more questions than they answer and fail to address unresolved issues from earlier in the book. Brown knew that when he reached the end, he would have the opportunity to begin again, to reenvision his work as a whole.
Cortez Sharp is an aging farmer in north Mississippi with a grim past and a solitary present. He long ago lost a son in a shooting accident, a daughter to the bright lights of Atlanta, and an infirm wife to indifference. When the wife dies, Cortez is less alone than he was with this woman he did not love and had not been intimate with for 37 years, not since the night he poisoned his pregnant black mistress, the love of his life, Queen, and buried her in a field. The murder of Queen is not the only appalling secret in Cortez's past. But he's hoping for a brighter future. He's building a catfish pond to lure back his daughter, Lucinda, and maybe lure Jimmy, too, the 10-year-old boy who lives in the trailer yonder. Cortez has had his timber cleared and the earth excavated for the pond; now he waits for the rain to fill its emptiness.
Jimmy, a sweet and emotionally precocious boy, lives with his worthless father, his junk-food - gobbling mother, and two vapid half sisters. Jimmy's father (he never gets a name) is a maintenance man who can't maintain a thing -- not the kitchen stove, not his '55 Chevy, not his boy's go-kart, not his marriage. His hobby is drinking and driving. His inattention on the job results in the gruesome death of a co-worker. His son's rotten teeth need attention, but there's beer to buy and cigarettes and frozen pizza and that new Hurst transmission.
Jimmy loves his father to death, wants to be with him in the worst way. He'll sit in the pickup while Daddy drinks in the bar if that's how it has to be. Jimmy also loves Kenny Chesney, his red go-kart, and anything Indian. But his daddy won't take him to the Kenny Chesney concert in Tupelo. He sells Jimmy's go-kart for auto parts and trades his spear point for $50 worth of beer. Jimmy's aching love for his father is heartbreaking. Yet Brown makes us care about this brutal, ignorant man and does so with brief moments of the father's self-reflection. Jimmy's father knows he ought to take the boy fishing, ought to get him to a dentist, ought to sit and talk. His intentions are good, but his will is weak. The best he can manage is to make up endearing nicknames for Jimmy like "Sport" and "Hot Rod." He's a man crushed by the weight of poverty and shackled to a paltry imagination.
I haven't even mentioned Cleve, a murderous ex-con, who realizes his daughter's no-account boyfriend needs killing, or Tommy Bright, the catfish man whose riches-to-rags story involves a gambling addiction. I also haven't mentioned the luminous prose. There's a passage of jaw-dropping beauty in which Brown pretty much encapsulates the modern rural South by describing a gas station-country store, one muscular and relentless sentence that's worth the price of admission.
As you write, you develop characters and themes and see if they resonate. If they don't, you elaborate or erase in your next pass. There are characters that Brown hadn't flesh ed out. Lucinda's boyfriend Albert is the sum of his Tourette's tics and little more. Jimmy's pal Herschel Horowitz is an emblem of prosperity more than a flesh-and-blood child. A bulldozer operator named Newell Naramore gets to speak for himself in the only chapter of first-person narration in the book, suggesting that Brown had bigger plans for the character. Jimmy has seen the ghost of Queen walking the land. He figures he'll ask Cortez about her. The opportunity does not arise. Then there's Ursula, the leviathan, the miraculous and ravenous catfish devouring her own children -- the dark secret at the bottom of the pond. Where are you going, Ursula?
There's not much point wondering what might have been. What we have is a gritty and compelling story that ranks with the best of Brown's fiction, with "Father and Son" and "Dirty Work." And Larry Brown in progress is better than just about anyone else polished and spit-shined. We'll miss him terribly.
John Dufresne's most recent book is the story collection "Johnny Too Bad."