Brown (The Wrecked, Blessed Body of Shelton Lafleur, 1996, etc.) takes Audubon to New Orleans in 1821, where a dark experience marks him for 30 years—though it may do less to a reader.
At 36, Audubon is married with two sons—but as yet no artistic success. Off he goes downriver (from his then-home in Ohio) to make his fortune as a bird-artist—and is approached by a gorgeous, unnamed woman who asks if he’ll draw her—in the buff. All right, except that when this liberated lady comes over—in the buff—to have a look behind the easel, Audubon can help himself no longer and falls upon her, though matters aren’t completed before she hastens away into the night. Who could she have been? Just imagine Audubon’s discomfiture when later, at the luxe sugar-cane plantation where he tutors the planter’s teenaged daughter (a minx), family friend Dr. Emile Gautreaux arrives for a visit with his wife Myra, who—is the naked woman! Worse, Myra then very suddenly dies, and the addled Audubon is coerced into staying up all night with Gautreaux, sitting by the body. The story is recollected—by Audubon and Gautreaux in turns—years later, when the dying Audubon calls Gautreaux to his bedside. As he travels toward Audubon, Gautreaux thinks about the past, and Audubon does the same in his bed (“speaking” to his two daughters, both dead since infancy). Much is parallel between the two men, both being scientist-artists in search of nature’s “truth” (a scholar of anatomy, Gautraux was fiercely maligned for using cadavers). If there’s doubt that they’ll find the “truth” of Myra’s death (was she murdered?), there’s none at all that Brown’s symbols are heavy (a hurricane, Audubon’s birds, Gautraux’s wife) and his language archaically elevated (“Perhaps you know already the perplexing intoxication of desire, its fearful might”).
Ambitious, effortful, acutely researched—but lithe it isn’t, with portent equal to content