Ten autobiographical essays that read more like journal entries, by the King of Grit Lit (Fay, 2000, etc.), disappointingly not up to the level of Brown’s last nonfiction collection, On Fire (1994).
The title piece, originally released in 1997 as a 40-page art edition, is the collection’s high-water mark, a richly told story about Brown’s son’s hopes of becoming a cattle-farmer in spite of a never-ending string of bad luck. (The instance detailed here involves birthing two stillborn calves.) “By the Pond,” which describes taking eight acres from which Brown fished as a young boy, fixing them up, and putting a dock in the water, is also noteworthy. “Thicker Than Blood,” short but effective, returns to Brown’s frequent subject, hunting, to tell how the older men in his small-town community initiated him into the world of hunting and its “reserves of good memories,” filling in for the father who died when he was 16 (and who didn’t hunt anyway). Brown struggles but nearly gets it right with a couple of others: “Harry Crews: Mentor and Friend,” an account of his life as a writer and Crews’s huge influence on him, and “So Much Fish, So Close to Home: an Improv,” a highly original but unfocused and awkward tale in need of editing. “Chattanooga Nights,” touching for its aw-shucks description of Brown’s first invitation to a literature conference, feels redundant after “Harry Crews” and comes embarrassingly close to self-canonization with its invocation of Eudora Welty, William Styron, Ernest Gaines, and the like. Of the collection’s final three essays, two (“Goat Songs” and “Shack”) are fine but not noteworthy, and the other (“The Whore in Me”) is uninspired.
Brown’s honest, down-to-earth prose is always readable and sometimes moving, but most of the pieces here lack substance.