The inhabitants of a rural Mississippi town circle one another warily, just steps away from open conflict, in Brown’s busy sixth novel, left unfinished when he died in 2004.
Valedictory introductions by the author’s friend Barry Hannah and editor Shannon Ravenel offer pre-emptive strikes against anticipated criticism, but they really aren’t necessary: Even incomplete, the book has much to offer. Its cast of vivid characters features septuagenarian farmer Cortez Sharp, soured by caring for a moribund wife confined to her wheelchair and enslaved by TV, who channels his energies into a pond on his property to be stocked with catfish. We also meet Cortez’s supplier, Tommy Bright, whose fish farm is endangered by his gambling debts; Cortez’s daughter Lucinda, living in Atlanta with boyfriend Albert, who’s afflicted with Tourette’s syndrome and speaks in rhyming obscenities; and Cortez’s tenant Cleve, an African-American ex-convict who undertakes to discourage the soldier who’s courting his daughter. The most substantial subplot focuses on neighboring youngster Jimmy, who becomes Sharp’s unlikely confidant, and Jimmy’s unnamed father, an embittered maintenance man who follows his straying wife’s adulterous example with unforeseen and depressing consequences. Brown digs deep into these weathered souls, repeatedly surprising the reader with quirky, explosive behavior and even contrary moments of grace. He was unexcelled in describing people at work and the whiplash confusion of sudden, violent action. Though the narrative was clearly building toward a complex resolution of its separate elements, the final 60 or so pages—which really ought to have been separated from the main text and presented in an appendix—are only disjointed stabs at a conclusion.
Given an impressive track record that runs from Facing the Music (1988) to The Rabbit Factor (2003), few will doubt that in time, the author would have completed the task and perhaps even crafted a great book.