- The Washington Times - Saturday, October 11, 2003


By Larry Brown

Free Press, $25, 339 pages


A feral kitten opens Larry Brown’s new novel, “The Rabbit Factory.” It’s “wild and skinny” and no one’s pet, dodging

traffic in Memphis, Tenn. At the end of the book, the kitten’s has a home and well on the way to being as tame as any cat can be.

In between, the very talented Mr. Brown, author of such well-received novels as “Fay” and the powerful “Father and Son,” tells several stories, seamlessly weaving together the lives of a number of characters who often don’t know one another and won’t meet by the book’s end.

What they have in common is that they live in Memphis or somewhere in Mississippi, that they come from small Southern towns or dirt farms and that they’re poor, or at least have been and don’t ever care to be so again.

There’s the now-old Arthur, for instance, and his wife Helen, a generation younger than her husband and a big-time boozer who steps out on her husband, but for whom Arthur hopes to capture the kitten to take her mind off drink. They haven’t gotten along for some time.

Anjalee, another character, turns tricks for a living, usually meeting her johns at Fifi’s Cabaret, but is sharp-as-a-tack and knows there’s a better life for her somewhere. Anjalee is fairly normal and blessed with common sense.

That’s not true of some of Mr. Brown’s other creations, for whom normality is foreign. It’s ex-con Domino D’Alamo’s job, for example, to care for and feed a ragtag menagerie of old lions and other big cats, some of which are three-legged.

The one-legged Miss Muffett, a human — her artificial leg is made of plastic — housekeeps for the rich, very nasty and murderous Mr. Hamburger. And there are others, equally rogueish or simple honest folks who don’t ask much from life. County constable Elwood “Perk” Perkins and his olderbrother Ricoaretwo. Penelope, a police officer, is another.

Two events set the novel in motion. First, Frankie Falconey, a dumb-as-a-stump wannabe gangster, hired to do in a man who has gotten on Mr. Hamburger’s bad side, kills the wrong guy, a deed that sets off a chain reaction that touches more than a few of Mr. Brown’s characters to varying degrees and utterly destroys both Frankie and Dom D’Alamo, who face the novel’s worst fates (Dom’s ultimately eaten by the lions he keeps, for example).

And, second, the kitten is caught by the fabulous Jada Pinkett, an old pit bull who’s abandoned his fighting days and now likes to “catch little tender things like kittens and baby rabbits and play with them.” Jada is Eric’s dog and Eric is a countryboy who came to Memphis to find a job.

He works in the pet store where Arthur happened to show up, asking about how to catch a kitten. Eric offers his services (though at first he doesn’t reveal that’s it’s Jada that’s going to be doing the catching), thus entangling himelf in the lives of the lonely Arthur and his boozie and horny wife.

Mr. Brown might be called the poet of the trailer park set, if that didn’t sound patronizing. He knows his characters too well to make them caricatures. What’s more, he likes them — likes them a lot — and respects them, even when they probably don’t deserve his respect.

And it’s one of Mr. Brown’s great gifts as a writer that he shows his readers why his characters deserve our respect. Another of his talents is an uncanny ability to balance the stark view of life that permeates this novel with the book’s ribald, raucous, and darkly hilarious qualities, which are always breaking out in unexpected places.

Consider the fate of the hapless Miss Muffett, who lost her leg in a boating accident when she was a child. One of her chores as housekeeper for Mr. Hamburger is to care for the evil man’s lap dog, given no name the novel. He doesn’t like Miss Muffett and she certainly doesn’t like it.

Their relationship peaks — or bottoms — when the dog steals Miss Muffett’s plastic leg one morning while its owner sleeps, recovering from a very nasty hangover. The dog buries it far from the house. And it’s lost. When we leave Miss Muffett, “she didn’t have any idea where her leg could be.”

As she rues her fate, Miss Muffett realizes why she hates the dog. “She was tired of being alone with the dog but not actually with the dog. It might have been different if he would be just a little friendly and be some company for her.”

Like other of Mr. Brown’s characters Miss Muffett sees herself as the victim of a chain of incidents beyond her control. The same is true of Dom D’Amato, the keeper of the lions. Dom, blessed with a poet’s regard for nature, is cursed (or so he thinks of himself) with relentless bad luck. While a convict years earlier, Dom had lost most of his hearing: “A pimply prison guard had fired a twelve-gauge shotgun right next to his ear one day just for the fun of it, one beautiful April day down in Mississippi, when spotted orange butterflies were out on the roadside daisies while they cut the tall grass with sling blades, and the free folks just drove on all day long.”

Freedom to do what he wants? Dom doesn’t believe that he has it. He sees no escape from his past. “The pimply prison guard had taken care of that for him a long time before. Kind of like a preordained thing or a snowball effect when you considered all the elements over the years.”

Preordained thing? Snowball effect? There is a fatalism that permeates Mr. Brown’s novels. Not just this one, but the others, too. “Fay” has it, and “Father and Son.” But it would be wrong to regard his worldview as so completely Calvinistic that free choice is an impossibility. There is still room for his characters to maneuver and make moral choices that make a difference.

These moral choices Mr. Brown never presents as particularly heroic, though they are. After Eric, Jada Pinkett’s owner, gets to know the elderly Arthur and his much younger wife Helen, for instance, Helen makes her sexual interest in the young man clear. He likes her that way, too, and he’s lonely. The two, the middle-aged lady and the youth, make plans to meet at the Peabody Hotel in Memphis, plans which Eric decides he will not keep. After all, he’d also gotten to know Arthur, Helen’s huband, and like him, even respect him.

“Damn, he was glad he didn’t go over there to that Peabody,” Eric muses after he makes the decision to stand Helen up and instead spend the evening with Arthur. “He’d decided after much thought, that this would be the best thing to do, to just come over here after all and sit around a while with Mister Arthur and keep him company and get something to eat and have a few drinks … ”

Eric’s sense of decency wins out and he’s very happy it did. Its victory permits him a feeling of contentment. It also allows a degree of intimacy to develop between him and Arthur and they speak freely with one another. The results are both touching and humorous.

“Well, I don’t think you’re borin’,” Eric tells the old man when Arthur complains that Helen pays little attention to him and doesn’t share his fondness for Westerns. Eric suggests a way of whetting Helen’s interests, “Why don’t you try talkin’ to her about Ben Johnson [the great star of such movies as “Shane” and “The Last Picture Show”]?” “I have,” Arthur responds dryly. “She’s not interested in old movies the way I am.”

Eric also tells his old friend about Jada Pinkett and how he became a gentle pit bull. Dogs, it seems, have free will too and can chose to change, or at least Eric thinks they can. As a young dog, Jada fought “seven times in the pit” and “though runtlike, had six times been victorious.” Then came the seventh fight, “In the back of a big chicken house in Paris, Mississippi … .”

Thirty-four drunk people watched the fight “and after suffering severe blood loss from a pumping vein in his left hind leg, Jada Pinkett “had been slowly checked down into the dry brown dirt’ by “a much larger and badly disturbed brindle bull named Tarzan Duran from Arthur, Georgia.”

It’s Eric’s considered opinion that in such circumstances, “maybe Jada Pickett had suffered a near-death experience that changed his personality and made him stop wanting to fight … .” And who’s to doubt that that is exactly what happened, given the fact that Jada now catches kittens in his jaws — and lets them go.

In this very readable — and touching — novel, Mr. Brown can be subtle in one paragraph and outrageous in the next. The picaresque “Rabbit Factory” is not so powerful a work as Mr. Brown’s breathtaking “Father and Son.” It doesn’t have at its center a character so memorable as “Fay” in the novel that bears her name.

But Mr. Brown is a first-rate writer. Fledgling writers would do well to copy pages from his books to learn how powerful simple words and language can be. No doubt he writes so well because he knows deeply what he writes about. But it’s true — and this cannot be said enough —that he writes so beautifully not just because he knows his subject and his characters, but loves them too.

At the end of the novel, it’s Christmastime. Helen’s in jail on her third DUI. Arthur and Eric are about to enjoy a dinner together. Afterward, they’ll watch the Western, “Once Upon A Time in the West.” Eric hasn’t seen it. Both look forward because it stars “Henry Fonda. Charles Bronson. And Claudia Cardinale.”

The kitten? It now lives at Arthur’s and as Eric cooks their dinner, “the kitten came walking down the hall, hugging the wall, its crooked tail arched up, and it was mewing softly, and it sounded like a question, like somebody looking for friends.”

Stephen Goode is senior writer at Insight magazine.

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