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The Writing Life - A life cut short

Larry Brown’s lasting impact on the Southern Gothic tradition

November 1, 2013
By Michael Tidemann - Staff Writer , Estherville News

This is a monthly column on the writing process. Topics will range from books and authors to writing conferences and workshops to the writing process itself.

A Miracle of Catfish by Larry Brown. Algonquin Books. Chapel Hill, N.C.

When the world lost Larry Brown at age 54 in 2004, it lost a person who may well have been destined to eclipse the entire pantheon of Southern Gothic Writers.

William Faulkner was of course the godfather of this pantheon, followed by Thomas Wolfe and more recently William Gay. While Wolfe wrote of his native Ashville, N.C. and Gay of his backcountry Tennessee environs, both Faulkner and Brown's fiction is steeped in the Mississippi hill country.

For many, the works Southern and Gothic are interchangeable. Indeed, it seems as though no one who has lived in or written about the South for any period of time can do so without having Gothic elements come into a work. Think of Flannery O'Connor, and the first story that comes to mind is A Good Man is Hard to Find, replete with the mass murder of a naive family on their way to Florida on vacation.

It should come as no surprise, then, that when Brown began writing, it would be in the Southern Gothic tradition. His work is steeped in small-town hucksters, waitresses and criminals who make the stars of America's Dumbest Criminals looks like geniuses.

Brown served in the Marine Corps in Vietnam and upon his return became a firefighter, working 10 days on and 20 days off - an ideal arrangement for a writer. Beyond high school, he had little formal schooling. His training rather was at the local library where he devoured Faulkner and Wolfe like a starving man at a banquet. From the time he decided to become a writer, it took eight years for him to achieve national prominence - a pace that would have been meteoric had he graduated from Harvard and gone through the Iowa Writers' Workshop.

Brown's oeuv're includes his short story collections Big Bad Love and Facing the Music while his novels are Fay, A Miracle of Catfish, Dirty Work, Father and Son, and Joe.

While his short fiction may show a future brilliant writer in utero, his first novel, Dirty Work, is absolutely magnificent. Shades of Faulkner rest heavily on this work that shows how two Vietnam vets - one maimed physically - the other emotionally - cope or don't cope with the fate the Viet Cong and their country has handed them. It's a must-read for anyone who needs to know about the true impact of war (which includes everyone).

Joe is a pivotal novel for Brown. In it, his protagonist, aptly named Joe, battles through alcoholism and what many might consider a ne'er-do-well existence to achieve something of heroic proportions. Brown turns a Southern good 'ol boy into a mid-twentieth century Ulysses, but instead of barring the doors and killing the suitors he exacts revenge on a child molester.

Fay is an offshoot of Joe in which the protagonist, Fay, escapes from her abusive father (the primary antagonist in Joe) and puts her country girl survival skills to work. Anyone who ever thought "street smart" was tough never met Fay who leaves a wake of dead bodies and broken hearts.

Father and Son, Brown's last completed novel, in the beginning seems a hodgepodge of disparate vignettes. However, like Faulkner's Light in August, Brown manages to draw those elements together into a haunting climax.

A Miracle of Catfish is an unfinished novel. Brown, who had written the bulk of it, sent what he had completed off to his editor just before he died tragically from a massive heart attack. The notes that Brown included of the unfinished novel indicate that even he was not certain of the outcome.

A Miracle of Catfish throws together two harmonically divergent characters - Cortez Sharp, a wealthy curmudgeon whose last name aptly reflects his personality, and Jimmy, a poor young boy whose father is named, again aptly, Jimmy's daddy and nothing else.

While many of Brown's villains are deliberately cruel, Jimmy's Daddy is an absolute idiot. He's like King Midas, only everything he touches turns sour. Think of a totally amoral, alcoholic Red Green and you start to get the picture.

And then we have Tommy, owner of Tommy's Big Red Fish Truck, on the verge of bankruptcy because he just can't seem to make it with his fish supply business in which he sells fish to farmers and others with ponds, like Cortez Sharp.

As Tommy faces the inevitable, he delivers his load to Sharp, and along with it his mammoth female breeding catfish.

Though Brown never had a chance to finish the novel, we can just about imagine. Jimmy is instrumental in saving Sharp's life after he rolls a tractor over and nearly kills himself. In gratitude, Sharp lets Jimmy fish his pond and even gives him a rod and reed combo of which even Babe Winkelman would be proud. And there, lurking beneath the waters, is the biggest catfish the South has ever seen.

Anyone who wants to really enjoy Brown's work would probably do best by reading Dirty Work to get an idea of the impact war may have had on Brown, followed by Joe, Fay, Father and Son and finally A Miracle of Catfish.

While Brown's short fiction is interesting and offers an interesting picture of some very colorful characters, it doesn't hold a candle to his longer works.

Brown is a writer who deserves not only to be tasted but chewed, savored and digested. People who don't like literature, who claim they hate reading, who hated literature in school, will probably be the ones most attracted to Brown who is just like them.

Only, thank God, he decided to become a writer.

Michael Tidemann's short stories have been regularly featured in the Boston-based online literary magazine, which reaches 59 countries and features writers from the New York Times, Newsweek, Business Week and the Wall Street Journal. He has a soon-forthcoming story in the Detroit-based literary magazine Struggle. His nonfiction has appeared in Overdrive, the San Diego Union-Tribune, Writer's Journal, Snowmobile and other publications. His author page is available at:



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