Writer Larry Brown of Oxford, Mississippi, died suddenly — of a heart attack, age 53 — on November 24, 2004, but earlier that month, he'd sent the manuscript of his sixth novel to his agent.
That manuscript was a whopping 710 pages, and it eventually landed in the hands of Brown's longtime editor, Shannon Ravenel of Algonquin Books. When it came to cuts in his writing, Brown had always trusted her judgment. But when it came to editing his last, unfinished novel, what was Ravenel to do? Without the author on hand to approve or disapprove, Ravenel knew from the outset that substantive changes were out of the question. Any changes to the plot, structure, or characterizations were out of the question.
So Ravenel, with Brown's widow's consent, did what she'd always done: She focused on minor cuts, places in the manuscript where the writing, in her view, went on past the point. She streamlined the narrative. She lightened some of the sections. She understood that Brown, who'd graduated from Oxford fire-fighter to short-story writer to novelist, had "reveled in the wide spaces that novels offer."
But maybe you thought Brown's fifth novel, The Rabbit Factory (after the concentrated storytelling of Joe, Father and Son, and Fay ), was way too wide open. Arrive at page 67 of Brown's A Miracle of Catfish (Algonquin Books), and you too may agree with its leading character Cortez Sharp (different context but the sentiment's the same): "It couldn't just keep on going like this."
But it does — all the way to page 454, at which point we read of real uncertainty in Brown's notes for the final, unwritten chapters of A Miracle of Catfish : "maybe a sex scene"; "trouble at the pond somehow"; and so on. Until, again according to Brown's notes: "finish, somehow."
No wonder the title page of A Miracle of Catfish calls it "a novel in progress." And here, by the closing page of A Miracle of Catfish , is where we've progressed to: 72-year-old Cortez Sharp paddling a boat on the pond he had dug on his farm outside Oxford. It's the same pond we watch being dug when A Miracle of Catfish opens. But over the course of a few months, things on the farm have taken some turns. Sharp's TV-addicted wife, a stroke victim, has finally died. Sharp's estranged daughter, Lucinda, who lives in Atlanta and works as a plus-size lingerie model, has had thoughts of moving back to Mississippi. Lucinda's boyfriend has gone from having an uncontrollable potty mouth (a product of Tourette's syndrome) to halfway being intelligible. And as for the catfish that fill Sharp's pond: It's February, and they're not exactly jumping, but one of them, a giant "cat" named Ursula, has practically pulled a 9-year-old named Jimmy under — hook, line, and sinker.
It beats drowning, which is what almost happens to Jimmy when his beer-guzzling daddy (called throughout the novel "Jimmy's daddy") throws him into a lake, half-thinking he's teaching the boy to swim. Jimmy's granddaddy did it to Jimmy's daddy, so where's the harm in doing it to Jimmy too?
The boy survives (barely), but can he survive a trailer-trash upbringing down the road from Sharp's farm? His daddy works in a stove factory by day and watches violent hunting videos by night — when, that is, he isn't drinking and driving, carrying on with (and impregnating) a co-worker, fiddling with his '55 Chevy, or terrorizing his family, and that includes his equally unfaithful wife Johnette, who works as a bank teller in Oxford, and his two stepdaughters: 13-year-old Evelyn, who loses her virginity during the course of this story, and 11-year-old Velma, whose diet consists of raw hot dogs and mayonnaise sandwiches.
And in lesser news, down on the farm:
Tommy, the fish-dealer from Arkansas who stocked Sharp's pond: He's addicted to gambling and loses it all: his wife and his business. The last we see of him, he's heading to the Delta. Destination: Tunica.
Cleve, the elderly black man, who used to work for Sharp: He's killed two men already, and he's served his time. He kills another man, but don't tell Cleve's unmarried daughter, Seretha. The shock could cause her to lose the baby she's carrying.
And Lacey, the co-worker Jimmy's daddy gets pregnant: Against his wishes, she's having her baby, and Jimmy's daddy can get lost. It'd be easier on everybody.
But Jimmy, as lonely a son as any you'll find in Larry Brown's fiction: His parents finally get him to a dentist. He saves the life of Cortez Sharp. He has his beloved go-kart sold out from under him by his double-crossing daddy. And he's learning to set his sights a little bigger and beyond his father's screaming Chevy: He's dreaming of a fancy pickup.
That ghost of a black woman Jimmy sometimes sees on the road? She's for Sharp to privately mourn and secretly memorialize. That hooded white robe hidden away in Sharp's barn? It's to stay hidden. And that old man we sometimes see collecting cans by the side of the road? He's for Jimmy's daddy to ignore. But those empty beer cans Jimmy's daddy has a habit of tossing out his car window: They're good for something: spare change. They keep the old man going — a case of a son unknowingly looking after his not-so-dear old dad.
What's to keep readers going despite the multiple, dead-end plot lines, despite the unresolved nature of A Miracle of Catfish? Jimmy's trigger-tempered daddy. Watch him try to feed a dollar bill into an uncooperative vending machine, and your blood will likewise boil. Watch him, both hands caught between the wheel well and tire of his Chevy after the jack gives way and you won't fault the guy for some honest and rare self-appraisal: "Yes sir. A thing like this could make a man take a look at his life and see what all was wrong with it. And he'd been doing that already. Only now he was doing it a lot harder."
Understatement as clear-eyed as this: It's enough to make you want to put the poor man out of his misery — free his crippled hands from inside that wheel well, hand him the smokes he lives on but can't reach, or shoot him. It'd be easier on everybody. To rid him of his redneck ways: That would take a miracle, or in A Miracle of Catfish , some major cutting.