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Brown's unfinished miracle of a novel

The Baltimore Sun

A Miracle of Catfish

Larry Brown

Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill / 455 pages / $24.95

For 16 years, Larry Brown's highly praised novels, short stories and nonfiction illuminated the brutally hard, funny and sometimes magical realities of his native Mississippi. In his sixth novel, A Miracle of Catfish, the book nearing completion when Brown died in 2004, he gives us old men and fathers as fiercely competent as they are murderous, and a factory maintenance man who can't do one blessed thing right, especially when it comes to fathering his wonderful little boy.

There are considerably fewer Mississippi wives and daughters in the novel than there are male points of view about the women's attributes and responsibilities (a light touch when cooking biscuits matters, in other words). There are even trash-talking crows that, if disguises were available, could join in tailgating parties when Ole Miss plays football at home.

Dozens of characters, human and animal, populate the novel, and Brown enriches even the walk-off parts with small, perfect details: A workingman whose lunch includes a "homemade fried apple pie crimped around the delicately crusted edges with a fork as evenly as teeth on a gear" is a wholly different creature than one who stands in line for vending-machine chili.

The novel's constants are human imperfection, the Mississippi landscape near Oxford and Brown's understanding of it all, captured in style and language readers of his earlier work will recognize instantly: "The blessed shade lived on the ridge. The white oaks stood with their green tops hanging thick under the sun, and a big old man in faded blue overalls walked in the June heat beneath them. He crunched lightly, ankles deep in dry brown leaves, feet wary for copperheads the same color."

The old man is Cortez Sharp, 72, who has a surfeit of dark secrets, a fortune stashed in the barn on his land near Oxford, a daughter in Atlanta who loves an artist with Tourette's syndrome and a dying wife back at the house who left Cortez's bed some 30 years earlier. He looks at two sloping walls of trees and sees "a natural place to build a pond" stocked with catfish, "plain as day." For Cortez, whose thoughts are almost his only companions, to have an idea is to make it happen. Methodically, he takes the steps that will make the pond the novel's center of gravity.

Down the road a piece from the pond taking shape, Jimmy lives in a rundown trailer with his mother, Johnette; his father; and two older half-sisters. "Jimmy's daddy" is a major character in the novel; he excels only in serial acts of selfishness and stupidity. "Jimmy's daddy" is the only name Brown gives him, a touch that continually underlines that difference between a job title and actual job performance: "And then he got to thinking about selling Jimmy's spear point for fifty bucks of beer back in the spring, and felt bad all over again. He wondered if the guy he'd sold it to would sell it back. On the other hand, Jimmy could probably find another one sometime. So he stopped thinking about it. If you wanted to get technical it was just a rock anyway." It's worth noting, though, that in a classic Southern sense, Jimmy's daddy may be worthless, but technically he's not shiftless. His lifetime goals may be mostly beer and vintage auto parts, but he does put in his 40 hours at the stove factory.

Brown's work has been praised for his portrayals of working-class men and women, which make dramatically clear a distinction that too often is lost: Naming a category (the working poor in Mississippi, for example) is a world away from creating believable, compelling characters who are part of a group. Brown emphatically does the latter; he uses a changing, third-person point of view, at times omniscient, at other times so close to his characters the effect is claustrophobic. Whether readers summon compassion for Jimmy's daddy, for example, or instead dream of backing over him with his very own 1955 Chevy two-door sedan, the responses are grounded in what we know -- what we're shown again and again -- to be true.

In the same way, there's much more to Jimmy than his rotten teeth and chaotic home life. There's his powerful need to love his daddy, even as he begins to see what's true about the man: "[W]hen it came down to it, his daddy could do whatever he wanted. But Jimmy had a burning question: Why? ... [H]e had to keep talking. He had to know something. There had to be some scrap of reason to hang to."

Brown's characterization of Jimmy, who is more of a man in elementary school than his father will be if he lives to 101, is one of the novel's major pleasures.

A Miracle of Catfish is organized around its various points of view; the narrative moves forward in time as we revisit the major characters. Things happen as lives intersect; there are some intensely dramatic scenes, especially those involving Jimmy's daddy and Jimmy in spectacular displays of bad parenting, and Jimmy and Cortez at the catfish pond. But the novel's episodic structure and the point of view employed make characterization the novel's primary focus.

Cortez's daughter, Lucinda, enjoys the most loving relationship in the novel, but it's with the artist, not with her father. Lucinda's difficult interactions with her rock-that-can't-be-moved father are part of the novel's exploration of what it means to be the father of a child. As much as class and race factor into the lives these characters lead, the ways these fathers' actions affect their children is never, not for a day or an hour, unimportant. The capacity of children -- even adult children -- for forgiveness is just one of the novel's miracles.

Brown had written 700-plus pages of A Miracle of Catfish before he died. It was prepared for publication by Shannon Ravenel of Algonquin Books, Brown's longtime editor and friend. In her editor's note she writes that she made cuts "to streamline the narrative and lighten some sections," and each cut is marked by ellipses, so readers can track where additional material once was.

No other editorial changes were made, she says, and there was "certainly no effort at 'ending' the novel. Instead, the last writing we see from Brown is a half-page of notes for those final, unwritten chapters.

Reading A Miracle of Catfish, it's impossible not to wonder how those notes would have been transformed into chapters -- and how those chapters would have truly ended the novel.

But this book deserves to be read for the writing Larry Brown was able to do, and it should send readers out to read (and reread) his work that came before it.

Lynna Williams, a short-story writer, teaches at Emory University. She wrote a version of this review for the Chicago Tribune.

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