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by Rick Bass

Pub Date: Sept. 14th, 2010
ISBN: 978-0-547-31726-7
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

Based on the career arc of a 1950s singing trio, this mythic novel is sadder than most country songs and stranger than any.

A book that defies categorization, and that reads more like cultural criticism than fictionalized biography, this narrative about the “bondage of fame” represents a radical departure for Bass (The Wild Marsh: Four Seasons at Home in Montana, 2009, etc.). Where the author writes often about the natural world in both his fiction and nonfiction, here he treats the Browns, a sibling country group remembered mainly for “The Three Bells,” as if they were fate’s playthings: “It had to be a freak of nature, a phenomenon, a mutation of history,” he proclaims of their harmonies. “As if some higher order had decided to use them as puppets—to hold them hostage to the powerful gifts whose time it was to emerge.” The narrative tone is often so portentously oracular and deliriously hyperbolic that the reader wonders whether there’s some irony intended, particularly when the grasp of the facts seems tenuous. Yet the descent of Maxine Brown into alcoholism and anonymity is ultimately tragic, as the narrative alternates between her bitter memories “after nearly fifty years of being forgotten” and the formative years of the Browns, whose sound “healed some deep wound within whoever heard it, whatever the wound.” Supporting players include Elvis Presley (for whom Bonnie Brown was his one true love, according to this account), Jim Reeves and Chet Atkins, though this is a novel less about individual characters than about “the heartbreak of immortality and the bitterness of pursuing it,” and how “the most constant thing in the world is change.” At the mercy of fate’s furies, the three Browns arrive at very different destinies, leaving Maxine to wonder whether “her life has been a huge mistake, a huge tragedy of waste and squander.”

An odd yet oddly affecting book.