Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Moby-Dick in a Southern pond: A Miracle of Catfish by Larry Brown

When we think about how the notion of "work" is portrayed in fiction, we probably go immediately to the tried and true: policeman, fireman, butcher, baker, candlestick maker.  Fueled by everything from the early readers of Richard Scarry to the latest Dilbert cartoon, labor in literature nearly always goes for the high-profile jobs.  Every now and then a novel will come along that accurately portrays life for the majority of us who spend our days staring at the grey fabric of cubicle walls--books like Then We Came to the End by Joshua Ferris or Personal Days by Ed Park.

But who ever thinks of a catfish farmer?

Larry Brown did and the result is a wonderful portrait of the modern working man in A Miracle of Catfish, Brown's posthumous novel published in 2007.

A recent series on critics' "favorite book about work" at the National Book Critics Circle's Critical Mass blog started me thinking about the late great Larry Brown and his last novel.  In A Miracle of Catfish, Tommy Bright is the down-on-his-luck owner of a fish-stocking business who, in the course of the novel, clandestinely slips a giant catfish named Ursula into 72-year-old Cortez Sharp's newly-dug pond.  A Miracle of Catfish is filled with more than a dozen memorable characters, but I particularly enjoyed the scenes involving Tommy and his big red truck compartmentalized with tanks holding crappie, largemouth bass, bluegills, and bream.

Here is just one moment from Tommy's life when he's working late at his office out in the barn, agonizing over bills, balancing the books, and fretting over supplies needed to keep his fish alive:
He was too old to start over. He was fifty-seven. He ought to be thinking about retiring instead of all this bullshit. Hell. A man got old and tired. He got tired of the things that happened to him on his job. He'd lost count of the times he'd been finned by catfish, but he remembered the worst ones. The one that got him all the way through the thumb that day in Hot Springs. The one he stepped on that day in Batesville, Mississippi, and drove the fin up under his big toenail. He had very nearly shit on himself for real when that one happened. But hell. Everybody had something on their job to worry about. Firemen risked getting burned up. Ironworkers had to deal with the reality of falling to their deaths. Getting finned was a part of Tommy's life. You just tried to minimize it as much as you could. It helped to wear leather gloves.

Let us now praise the overlooked and overworked fish farmers of the world.

For more of the virtues of Brown's novel, here's a review I wrote for January Magazine shortly after the book came out:

Moby-Dick in a Southern Pond

Sometimes it's the unexpected loss of a great talent that fills us with regret and pangs us like a sore tooth.  When a writer like Larry Brown dies of a sudden heart attack at age 53, we mourn his passing with a series of "what ifs" and "should haves."  Yes, we knew he smoked like a chimney (ironic, considering he was a former firefighter) and that he probably drank as hard as the characters in his novels and short stories, but somehow we thought his pen would go on forever.  Sadly, that was not to be.

When the heart attack felled him the day before Thanksgiving in 2004, Larry Brown left behind a devoted band of hardcore fans who compared him to a modern Faulkner, a Southern Raymond Carver, a force of nature unto himself.  No one was better at describing the worn-out lives of lower-class Americans (except Carver himself).  The Day the Words Died was a sad one for those who knew him personally and those who knew him only through books like Father and Son, Big Bad Love, Joe and Fay.  However, he left behind more than mourners--he also left a nearly-finished sixth novel.

His publisher, Algonquin Books, has now delivered Brown's parting gift to our bookshelves.  A Miracle of Catfish is not just Brown's last book, it's his best.  Yes, it's raw and incomplete, but it's filled with so much pathos and longing and downright beautiful writing that you just know Brown was pouring everything he had into these pages.

In her editor's note, Algonquin's Shannon Ravenel says, "The first-draft manuscripts of his books were nearly always so polished stylistically that my job as editor mostly involved showing him the places I felt the novels would benefit from trimming.  He was, as a novelist, likely to write more than he needed.  Having honed his skills on the short-story form, he reveled in the wide spaces that novels offer."

Here, in A Miracle of Catfish, Brown runs wild and free in those wide open spaces and it's a joy to watch him cram as much as he can between the two covers.  Ravenel tells us she trimmed this book down from a 710-page manuscript and here and there we do feel the loss of some material, but Ravenel has apparently not cut out any vital organs.

Set in rural Mississippi, A Miracle of Catfish sprawls across a year in the life of about a dozen characters, including 72-year-old Cortez Sharp who digs a pond and fills it with catfish, a down-on-his-luck fellow named Tommy who runs a fish-stocking business and who secretly slips a giant catfish into Cortez's pond, eight-year-old Jimmy who lives down the road from Cortez and whose sole happiness in life is riding his new go-kart, and Jimmy's daddy who knows he's "nothing but a fuckup, would never be anything but a fuckup, and never had been anything but that."  Eventually, these lives--including Ursula, the Moby-Dick of catfish--intersect in ways great and small.

Most of the characters are stuck in the rut of blue-collar depression, both economic and mental.  As he keeps hitting the snooze button to delay getting out of bed and going to his soul-grinding job at the factory, Jimmy's daddy (who is never known by anything but this label) laments: "He's going to have to fix his life somehow because it's not working the way it is.  But what's he going to do?  What's the first move he's going to make?  What's he going to do today that's going to be different from yesterday?"

Jimmy's daddy is in a tailspin throughout the novel.  Right down to the last time we see him, we're pretty certain he's not going to pull out of it.  Bad luck, bad choices and ignorance cling to him like a stink he can't wash off his hands.  He's responsible for a man's death at the factory (gruesomely, beautifully described by Brown), he experiments with and regrets adultery, he beats Jimmy and disappoints the boy at every turn, he drinks to excess, and his only entertainment seems to be sitting in his bedroom watching hunting videos with such a salivating passion you'd think they were soft-core porn (and yet, when he finally gets the chance to go on a real hunt with his work buddies, he proves to be an impotent and negligent failure).

It's his son, however, who draws most of our sympathy.  He's a naive dreamer who always looks on the sunny side of life even as he's literally being beaten down.  He's a simple, almost unbelievably ignorant boy, but we're drawn to him, rotten teeth and all.  Late in the novel, Jimmy has an encounter with a horny German Shepherd that is at once both pitiful and hilarious.  Brown carries the punchline through several chapters, but knows enough not to wear it thin.  Young Jimmy is, after all, the closest we come to a main character and it's onto him that we project most of our pity.  Here's a son who continues to bear a slavish devotion to his father even though the worthless fuckup is too lazy to fix the chain on the go-kart, never takes Jimmy to a Kenny Chesney concert as promised, and nearly kills the boy when he tosses him into a lake to teach him how to swim.  Jimmy is a brave, sweet kid, even if he is unwise to the reproductive abilities of dogs.

There are some big scenes which stand out thanks to Brown's maestro method of delivering sharp, sudden violence (as when the factory worker is crushed to death) but it's the smaller moments which are the novel's pay-off.  If this is a first draft, then Brown's skill with words is all that much more impressive.  The beauty is in the details, whether he's describing the mechanics of a stove factory assembly line, or leaving us in awe of a monster catfish:
She was not a behemoth. She was a beauty. She was the nightmare fish of small boys and she came from the depths of sweaty dreams to suck them and their feeble cane poles from the bank or the boat dock to a soggy grave.

Brown takes pleasure in compiling the everyday minutiae of life.  If you're the kind of reader who doesn't want to spend a whole chapter watching a man slowly filling a pond with buckets of fingerlings ("the water came flowing out in a wide tongue and the little catfish came swimming with it"), then this is probably not the book for you.  The author takes his time, creating his huge mural with tiny brushstrokes.

Brown's world is one where you can pull up to a rural convenience store and find "a toddler standing in dirty underpants on the gravel out by the gas pumps eating cigarette butts."  It's a place where a washed-up, burnt-out man lives in a "grassless mobile home that was no longer mobile, merely home" and eats "lighter-fluid-flavored hamburgers" washed down with a six-pack.  It's country Brown knew like the veins on the back of his hand, a tucked-away part of the state where "dirt roads" led all through the woods on the other side of the railroad tracks and "little juke joints were scattered all up and down them, places where people gathered on weekend nights to listen to electric guitars and drink homemade whiskey and Budweiser."  He makes it as authentic and pungent for the reader as the next-best thing to being there.

I get the feeling that, had Brown lived to see the novel to completion, this would have been a much longer book, a hefty culmination of all that his career had been building to--in short, a southern-fried masterpiece.  As it stands, it comes just shy of achieving that status.  Mind you, it is still great and wholly satisfying.  Like a three-hour movie that's so absorbing you don't even notice your bladder pains until the end credits roll, A Miracle of Catfish keeps you glued to every one of its 455 pages.  And yet, I often found myself wanting more.  Some of the plot lines fray and fizzle and are outright abandoned, while others build to a climax that never really comes.  I suppose much of that is due to Brown's untimely departure from life.  Had the good Lord given him just one more year or even six months, I think it's safe to say we would be holding a work of genius in our hands.

As always, however, we cannot judge what could be, only what is.  More than just a footnote in Brown's career, this is a story that sings and hums and whistles with a choir of voices, from throats burned by whiskey and cigarette smoke.  To put it simply, I didn't want this novel to end.  And I can say that about very few books these days.

The best way to describe Brown's writing is to take a page from his own book where he describes Cortez's dreams: "They had color and light and texture and dialogue.  And mood.  Lots of mood.  Sometimes it was blue lights and a smoky bar.  Sometimes it was wood smoke and a campfire."  That's Larry Brown for you.  Mood and texture, light and color, as real as pea gravel spitting out beneath your tires, as heartfelt as regret in a soured marriage.  Goddamn, he'll be missed.

No comments:

Post a Comment