A Miracle of Catfish
By Larry Brown
ALGONQUIN BOOKS; 455 PAGES; $24.95
The famed Ole Miss journalism Professor Jere Hoar was once asked in an interview, "Why, exactly, does Oxford produce so many writers?" The northern Mississippi town has fostered writers as diverse as John Grisham, Tom Franklin and William Gay, and of course, William Faulkner, now immortalized in bronze on the town square. Hoar replied that when growing up as a child in Oxford, "You saw writers walking down the street every day and grow up thinking that it's a normal thing, wanting to be a writer, the sort of job anybody can do."
Larry Brown was no different. The ex-Marine spent 16 years as an Oxford firefighter before dedicating himself to writing full time. When Brown died of a heart attack at age 53 in November 2004, he'd just delivered the bulk of his sixth novel, "A Miracle of Catfish," to his publisher. In an essay that introduces the book, Brown's friend and fellow Oxford resident Barry Hannah describes Brown as a "late bloomer" who hectored him at the local bar with story after story, some "so bad" Hannah would duck out the back of the bar when he "saw him coming down the walk with the inevitable manila envelope." Brown did improve: In total, he delivered five powerful novels (including "Dirty Work" and "Joe"), a pair of affecting memoirs ("On Fire" and "Billy Ray's Farm"), two story collections, and this unfinished final manuscript.
Sadly, since "A Miracle of Catfish" was left unfinished, it is impossible to ultimately judge. The publisher, who offers ellipses to indicate cuts to the text, provides a single page of notes Brown outlined for the final chapters of what is already a sprawling country epic. As it stands, the book chronicles a year in the life of a small community outside Oxford in the year 2004-2005, beginning with septuagenarian Cortez Sharpe bulldozing the white oaks from his property to make way for a new catfish pond -- an event Brown notes in a syntax that could just as easily have come from the pen of Faulkner:
"The soft earth that had lain hidden beneath rotted leaf mold for millenniums was torn up and printed with dozer tracks and shown to the unflinching sun, where it lay curled and cracked and began to dry and flake and be clambered upon by red fire ants," writes Brown.
Sharpe himself is the most vividly drawn of the large cast of locals, which includes his wife, a stroke victim who sits idle in a wheelchair watching endless infomercials on TV, waiting to die; a young neighbor boy named Jimmy who disturbs Shape's idyll with a noisy red go-kart; and Jimmy's father (who is known solely by that moniker), a factory worker, who, when not drinking beer, is watching hunting videos and worrying over the state of his '55 Chevy and newly pregnant mistress. Sharpe's daughter, a plus-size lingerie model, lives in Atlanta with a painter suffering from Tourette's syndrome who speaks in rhyming vulgarities, whom Sharpe refers to exclusively as the "damn retard."
It may sound as if Brown is indulging in the horny, smoky, trailer-trashy cliches of Southern-fried fiction, but Brown is better than that, and generates tremendous pathos for his people, rendering them far more human than mere caricatures. He's equally adept at incorporating infrequent and surprising picaresque elements, especially in the form of anthropomorphized animals, such as a pair of crows that talk in African American patois, and a behemoth catfish named Ursula who shares Sharpe's pond with 3,000 far smaller catfish.
Eventually, Sharpe teaches Jimmy to fish, an act that begins to close the circle of the generations and the community, but soon thereafter, the story abruptly ends.
Since there can be no resolution to the action -- which includes a number of accidental deaths and pregnancies, as well as a murder -- the cursory plot is ultimately incidental to the vivid, if lengthy depictions of the everyday obsessions of the locals: hunting, drinking beer, smoking cigarettes and mulling their lot in life.
Knowing from the start that the book is unfinished -- lacking a roof, so to speak -- means the reader can only take pleasure from being lashed by the elemental energy of Brown's imagination, rather than ever fully inhabiting it.
Ultimately, the experience of reading this finely wrought but unrealized novel is not unlike the satisfaction fishing on a hot, sunny day offers: One sits in a daze, halfheartedly in anticipation of those little tugs on the end of the line that awake you to consciousness. And even if you don't return home with a single catch or a new trophy to mount on the wall, you still believe that your time was well spent.