Book Review: Readings

Larry Brown

Readings

A Miracle of Catfish

by Larry Brown

Algonquin, 456 pp., $24.95

In that it is forever incomplete, Brown's sixth and final novel should arguably be exempt from criticism. Its flaws bear mention – when editor Shannon Ravenel relates, "He was, as a novelist, likely to write more than he needed," it's easy to agree – but the book Brown had almost finished when he died suddenly at home in Lafayette County, Miss., recommends itself even as a work in progress, with too much weight on the exposition and an ending not yet written.

As it is, A Miracle of Catfish probably isn't destined for your beach bag. It's more of a study in form, beginning with a hand-drawn map of the setting and ending with notes for the final chapters and an epilogue. In between are fathers and sons and a stretch of land, Brown's métier, and the drawling rhythm of rural life: waiting for rain to start or stop, waiting for payday, waiting for fish to bite, waiting for the consequences of what you did wrong and can't hide. Cortez Sharp is a crusty old farmer with secrets in his barn, an estranged daughter in Atlanta, and a brand-new stock pond on his property. Just around the way lives Jimmy's daddy – that's how he's identified throughout the book – an irredeemable screwup and just-beer alcoholic with a curious and tragically neglected 9-year-old son, who's watching the pond for signs of new catfish.

Brown changes perspective often because he can, slipping from one voice to another without a wobble – including crows in a tree, a puppy, and the first-person narrative of a bulldozer driver. Not all of these impressions are necessary to develop the book's remarkably textured sense of place; in some cases, Brown has written more than he needed. Just the same, the depth of the book's characterizations rewards a reader's patience, and Brown's plainspoken but elegant prose craft is a cozy vehicle for some of the more gothic touches in the story. Such as the ghost.

Ultimately it is the unflinching but humanistic observation of rural Southern manhood – the hopes and betrayals of kinship, the frustrations of poverty and thwarted success, the seemingly inexorable pull of poor decisions, the urge to protect that can become violent – that will define Brown's body of work. Miracle, too, is at times a melancholy read, driven as it is by the yearnings of children and fathers and old men to do right despite their deep flaws. No resolution exists, but Brown's final chapters suggest the possibility of redemption and reconnection.

A note to readers: Bold and uncensored, The Austin Chronicle has been Austin’s independent news source for almost 40 years, expressing the community’s political and environmental concerns and supporting its active cultural scene. Now more than ever, we need your support to continue supplying Austin with independent, free press. If real news is important to you, please consider making a donation of $5, $10 or whatever you can afford, to help keep our journalism on stands.

Support the Chronicle  

READ MORE
More Book Reviews
<i>Presidio</i> by Randy Kennedy
Presidio by Randy Kennedy
For his debut novel, Kennedy creates a road story that portrays the harsh West Texas terrain beautifully and fills it with sympathetic characters.

Jay Trachtenberg, Sept. 14, 2018

Hunting the Golden State Killer in <i>I'll Be Gone in the Dark</i>
Hunting the Golden State Killer in I'll Be Gone in the Dark
How Michelle McNamara tracked a killer before her untimely death

Jonelle Seitz, July 20, 2018

More by Marrit Ingman
Wonder Stories
Wonder Stories
Books

July 25, 2008

King Corn
The film’s light hand, appealing style, and simple exposition make it an eminently watchable inquiry into the politics of food, public health, and the reasons why corn has become an ingredient in virtually everything we eat.

Nov. 9, 2007

KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

A Miracle of Catfish, Algonquin, Larry Brown

MORE IN THE ARCHIVES
NEWSLETTERS
One click gets you all the newsletters listed below

Breaking news, arts coverage, and daily events

Can't keep up with happenings around town? We can help.

Austin's queerest news and events

Eric Goodman's Austin FC column, other soccer news

Information is power. Support the free press, so we can support Austin.   Support the Chronicle