More than a fish story

In A Miracle of Catfish, published after his death, Larry Brown weaves another intricate tale.

Published May 8, 2007

Mississippi writer Larry Brown was 53 when he died of a heart attack in November 2004. A native of Oxford, Miss., he failed senior English in high school but taught himself how to write in adulthood. First, he became an insatiable reader. Then, he wrote dozens upon dozens of stories, every one of which publishers rejected.

Those early works were awful, says his friend and fellow Oxford author Barry Hannah, writing in the introduction to A Miracle of Catfish, Brown's work recently published posthumously by Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill. The title page calls it "a novel in progress."

"In the early '80s he showed me stories that were so bad, I'd duck out the back of the bar when I saw him coming down the walk with the inevitable manila envelope, " Hannah writes. "I didn't give him a cold prayer in hell as to a future in literature. When he published in Harley Davidson's Easy Rider, a story about a galoot, a sheriff, and a marijuana patch, as I recall, I cheered but secretly believed he'd then peaked out."

It was the start of Brown's professional writing career. At his death, with five novels and substantial other works behind him, publications as respected as the New York Times lauded his work.

But this is not his obituary. This is about A Miracle of Catfish, Brown's latest tale.

Key themes characterize much of his past writing, and they are emphasized here: poverty, ignorance and flawed characters. Brown was a lifelong resident of Lafayette County, Miss., and his knowledge of the area is as important as the people. Cotton crops, summer vegetable gardens, cattle farming, fishing, deer and boar hunting all figure in the landscape near Oxford.

Creative characters

Like William Faulkner, another writer who worked near Oxford, Brown can let a sentence spool out as long as a 20-pound test line. It takes a while to get his work. The detail with which he fills scenes requires attention; the book is not easy to skim.

Few of his characters are wholly sympathetic. The man Brown calls "Jimmy's daddy" throughout this story seems utterly without merit most days. His favorite pastimes are driving around in his pathetic automobile, drinking beer, smoking cigarettes and rationalizing all his transgressions.

Jimmy, his little boy, tries valiantly to earn his father's approval. He adores his old man despite overwhelming reasons not to. The guy sells off his son's treasures to buy car parts and beer, strikes fear in his heart with violent punishment and nearly drowns him, figuring his son will sink - or instantly learn how to swim.

Jimmy discovers a newly dug pond on a neighbor's property. The old farmer, with secrets of his dark past buried on his land, eventually invites the boy to fish the place, admonishing Jimmy to keep confidential the fact of the watery enclosure he is stocking with catfish.

The guy who supplies the fish has his own troubles, having gambled away most of his considerable income in a failed attempt at expansion. He is in big trouble at the time of delivery and leaves behind a prize the boy almost discovers.

Some revealing clues

Brown's prose is both lyrical and spare. For the most part, Catfish is the story of men who do not always abide by traditional codes of honor and ethics. His female characters are as complex and as damaged.

I don't mean to imply that every moment of the book is misery. Brown gives his readers scenes that are staggeringly gorgeous, hilarious and twisted.

It is my impression that every dark moment in this story carries a tiny flicker of light, but perhaps that says less about Brown and more about me. At more than 450 pages, this splendid tangle of plot lines ends much too soon.

But what about...? I wanted to ask, and then saw the next page: Shannon Ravenel, the brilliant editor who is credited with "discovering" and encouraging Brown through his writing career, published his notes for the final chapters of the book, leaving just enough detail for readers to form their own conclusions.

Jimmy, I'm hoping, gets a break. It doesn't look as if his daddy will get a 25th chance. And the farmer with the fish pond? It's clear what eventually happens to him, but what about the 40-pound catfish the stocker managed to sneak into his pond? And does the guy who shot his daughter's boyfriend get away with murder?

Larry Brown was a genius storyteller, and this last book only further solidifies his reputation. Read it and weep for the voice that is gone.



A Miracle of Catfish

By Larry Brown, Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, $24.95, 455 pages