By Larry Brown
Free Press, 339 pp., $25
Director Robert Altman's Nashville was some kind of landmark movie, but it was a good, not great, one if art's the yardstick -- great in the acting and technical departments, yes; good in the coherence department, no. But breakthrough it was and better than almost any American film at the time and for all the right reasons and despite some wrong reasons cited by critics since 1975.
Reference to Nashville appears inside the jacket of Larry Brown's new novel, The Rabbit Factory, and it shows up again on page one of the press release from its publisher, because what Brown does here is tackle a wide cast of characters, follow them across a half-dozen or so major plot lines, and crisscross those lines at surprising angles. The difference being: This isn't Nashville. It's Memphis and north Mississippi, both of which make The Rabbit Factory, from this tough-minded, sometimes great, always worth-reading writer, tooth and claw for man and beast. Trouble is, it's a raw deal all way 'round -- save for some uncommon decency here and there, save for some broad comedy to go with the broader violence.
Cornered in one cage, in a house on South Parkway: aging husband Arthur (impotent) and middle-aging wife Helen (alcoholic). Arthur is considering a vacuum pump; Helen is considering divorce, when she is not at the lobby bar of The Peabody and waking up in the bed of the bartender. Eric is the 21-year-old, homeless, pet-shop boy whose pit bull, Jada Pinkett, rescues a homeless kitten in Arthur and Helen's yard. Helen hits the bottle and on Eric. Arthur mixes the drinks, watches Westerns.
In another corner: Anjalee; home base: Gigi's Angels out on Winchester. She's on probation after being nabbed by the "couch cops" at Fifi's Cabaret, then she's on the lam for murdering a murderous attendant at the Pleasant Years Nursing Home. Frankie is Anjalee's hitman sugar daddy who does dirty work for a mobster named Mr. Hamburger (of Chicago, Memphis, and Como). Frankie's dead meat for making a wrong hit in a Cooper-Young barbershop, which Arthur witnesses, and Anjalee can't help Arthur when he's upstairs at Gigi's. But she can win the heart of Wayne, a sailor and amateur boxer whose carrier in the Atlantic slices into a mother blue whale.
Another corner: Domino on Front Street delivers -- frozen meat (for his boss, Hamburger) to a sanctuary for mistreated lions near Water Valley and frozen pot (at $6,400 a pound) to a dealer down there too. One night on a backroad in Yalobusha County, Domino's "reefer truck" hits a whitetail, then he stabs a constable, then Domino hightails it, then the cop's brother knifes Domino where no man needs knifing, ever. Domino, though, does deliver: He feeds one lion.
And another: Miss Muffett in Como is house/dog-sitting for Hamburger -- the same Hamburger Miss Muffett accidentally unmanned with a posthole-digger (to go the way of the leg she lost to a boat propeller?). The dog isn't housebroken, but he does break through a second-story window and jumps off the roof while Miss Muffett is busy getting soused then laid by a man named Nub (who once ran a "rabbit factory" with Eric's "deddy"). Dog and sitter survive. Then the dog buries what looks to him like a bone, and Miss Muffett sits down to what looks to her like a fine burger.
And: Merlot is the white, gun-shy Ole Miss English professor carjacked by Domino. Penelope's the black cop he falls for, and Penelope, who used to date the constable stabbed by Domino, falls for him. Meanwhile, Merlot's aged Candy is in bed at home in Oxford, cared for by Marla Poteet, an 80-year-old ex-stripper. Candy is ... can't say it, it's too pitiful for words, but Brown finds some in a climactic paragraph that starts on a heartrending note and ends on a bloody one.
By which time, you might be envisioning some future film version of The Rabbit Factory. Personally, I can't see it. The ASPCA'd never hear of it. Stomachs wouldn't stand for it. And, reader, you've been warned.
Larry Brown will be signing and reading from The Rabbit Factory at Square Books in Oxford on Tuesday, September 16th (signing: 4:30-5:30 p.m.; reading: 6 p.m.) and at Davis-Kidd Booksellers in Memphis on Wednesday, September 17th, beginning at 7 p.m.