THE AMERICAN WEST (mostly): Fact and Fiction (mostly fiction)

"NOBODY GETS TO BE A COWBOY FOREVER." -- Chet Rollins (Jack Palance) in MONTE WALSH (NG, 1970)

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Monday, April 15, 2013


(Algonquin, 2007)
I had heard the late Larry Brown interviewed on NPR a couple of times and thought he sounded interesting, but for some reason I had never followed-up and read any of his work. Then about a year ago, a friend recommended him to me. She suggested that I begin with his novel, Dirty Work.  I did – and I was hooked. I quickly read three more of his novels and a short story collection. Moreover, I have just finished A Miracle of Catfish.

Larry Brown wrote about his northern Mississippi homeland, which is the same geographic area about which William Faulkner wrote.  Not only was Brown’s literary territory Faulknerian, so were his characters, mostly hard-living, hard-drinking, hard-loving, hard-luck losers, whose hard-luck is mostly the result of bad choices and bad decisions.

However, Brown was his own man and his voice was not that of the great man. I always had the feeling that Faulkner was a detached observer who viewed his characters and their foibles from afar. He seemed to look down his aristocratic nose at them and there was no possibility that he would ever associate with them on a social level.

Brown, on the other hand, was anything but detached. He was riding down the back roads in the pick-up with his characters, drinking beer, smoking cigarettes, and cursing the circumstances that had made them the losers they were, while not recognizing the role they themselves played in creating the situations in which they found themselves.  Brown knew these people intimately, I believe, because he was once one of them.

The two writers differ in another way. Faulkner was overly generous with his words (but not with his periods). Brown was an economical writer who was stingy with his words (but not with his periods). Therefore, while they wrote about the same region and the same people, they did so in a different fashion.


A Miracle of Catfish left me with an empty feeling. Despite its 454 pages, it is an unfinished novel – which is why I would give it four stars rather than five. We are left hanging, not knowing what eventually happened to the story’s five main characters and large supporting cast. Unfortunately, we will never know.

A Miracle of Catfish is not Brown’s latest book; it is his last book. Before he could finish it, he died of a massive heart attack on November 24, 2004. He was fifty-three years old.

Larry Brown

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