Final words of author Larry Brown
Published: Sunday, April 1, 2007 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, March 31, 2007 at 9:55 p.m.
Shannon Ravenel has nurtured between 100 and 150 books into existence in her 45-year publishing career, but none presented the challenge of Larry Brown's "A Miracle of Catfish."
The novel was not finished and its author died regrettably young more than two years ago. When Brown's wife, Mary Annie Brown, gave the manuscript to Ravenel, it was 900 pages long with many pages left to wrap up the tale set in Brown's beloved northern Mississippi.
"And it seemed to me that the only problems with it were problems of weight and scenes that went on too long, and a couple of characters that didn't seem to pull their share of the weight," Ravenel said. "So, all I did was cut - and I did that only after talking with other novelists."
The counsel helped the Algonquin Books co-founder set a threshold. She also went back and read over previous correspondence with Brown on his opinions and instructions on previous work. And she relied on the knowledge gleaned from editing eight books by one of the South's most promising and interesting writers.
The resulting "Catfish," with notes from Brown on a proposed ending, was released this month.
"I thought it was great," said Richard Howorth, mayor of Brown's hometown of Oxford and owner of Square Books. "I'm a fan - I'm an original fan and remain so. I just like his stories. I like the way he writes. I like his sense of humor and some of his quirkier traits. For me, reading a book by Larry is a lot like being around Larry, and it's always fun and interesting."
One fan not lining up to read the book is Mary Annie Brown. "I've not read it," she said. "Just can't bring myself to do that quite yet. But my oldest son has read it and he thoroughly enjoyed it."
Ravenel called "Catfish" more lyrical than Brown's past work, with loving descriptions of northern Mississippi's rolling hill country. She said he was gathering strength as a storyteller, and his death from a heart attack at age 53 cost readers a burgeoning star.
"I think he was already beginning to be at the height of his creative powers," Ravenel said. "He just never let up and he just got better and better, and more and more complex, and more and more interesting."
Brown began to write in 1980. The former Marine was a firefighter with a few abandoned credits at the University of Mississippi and a curiosity about the craft of writing.
He met Howorth through the bookstore, where Brown taught himself how to write by reading some of the greats. Howorth said Brown's work shares genetic material with that of Southern greats Harry Crews and Cormac McCarthy, known for sweaty, intense stories based in the lives of everyday people.
Brown wrote five discarded novels. The first - about a man-eating bear in Yellowstone - he once described in a speech as horrible. "You would not believe how horrible," he said. "Just imagine. It was 327 single-spaced pages of sex and man-eating." He burned one manuscript and was ready to take a match to No. 6, a novel called "Dirty Work," based in part on his father's World War II experiences.
Brown had a few short stories published in journals and magazines and a lot of rejection letters. Mary Annie Brown said he became depressed after six years.
"I watched him burn one novel," she said. "We had one of our worst fights over his writing when he decided that 'Dirty Work' was no good and he was burning it. That was one time I did put my foot down and told him he had worked too hard, I had worked to hard, and he would not burn that book."
Around that time, Ravenel found her first Brown story in The Mississippi Review magazine. It was called "Facing the Music" about a man and wife lying in bed watching a movie after the woman had a mastectomy. It grabbed her immediately.
"Larry Brown was able to stare it down and face it, not avoiding any of it," she said. "But he was remarkably brave in looking pain and trouble directly in the face and then describing it. He didn't blink and that's what drew me to him."
She sent a letter to Brown asking if he had any more stories she could look at.
Brown recalled receiving the letter in a 1990 National Public Radio interview: "I said I've got a hundred. How many would you like to see?"
That inspired a short story collection. "Dirty Work" came next. His work began to draw notice outside the writer-rich Oxford area. He won the Southern Book Critics Circle Award twice and was able to quit his job to write full time.
Mary Annie Brown said "The Miracle of Catfish" may not be the last posthumous release from Brown's work. In time, she plans to look at other material. "I know there are a couple more novels here," she said. "Whether they're worth publishing or not, I don't know. But there's a lot of stuff here."
She said the work with potential comes from both early and late in his belated career. For fans, future releases could give readers a look at a writer experimenting, learning his craft - and changing his future.
"Larry was a believer. ... If he thought he could accomplish something, he was going to finish it one way or another, just like the cabin he built from scratch," Mary Annie Brown said of the writing haven her husband built on an idyllic piece of land. "It took him five years to build it, and he moved the furniture in the week before he died."
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