Rabbit at unrest

In Larry Brown’s new book, The Rabbit Factory (Free Press, 2003), the characters multiply faster than, well, you know.

There’s Arthur, an old, wealthy guy who suspects that his younger wife Helen might be having an affair. There’s Helen, who knows she’s cheating. And there’s Eric, a confused young runaway (and pet-store clerk) who ambles into their life by chance.

Brown might have shaped something introspective and unspeakably modern from the interactions between these three characters — from the unspoken tensions, the fragile hopes, the twinges of mortality that come with the reckoning of May-December (and, for that matter, February-May) romances.

Except then Brown would have had to leave out the bit where the gangster gets ground into hamburger meat. That definitely would have ruined the sensitive nuance.

As would leaving out the part where the housekeeper named Miss Muffett has her prosthetic leg dragged off and buried in the garden by her boss’s dog.

The Rabbit Factory teems with the stories of a motley crew of characters, among them a college professor, a hooker and an ill-fated ex-con. So many characters, in fact, that it takes two cities to hold them all: Memphis and Oxford, Miss., with a fair amount of traveling the highways in between.

Brown, himself, grew up in Oxford. He was serving as a captain in the city’s fire department when Shannon Ravenel, editor of New Stories of the South, came across one of his stories. At the time, Brown was 36. The story was the second he’d ever published, and, as Ravenel would later say, one of the best stories she’d ever read — high praise from someone who must read thousands every year.

Ravenel asked Brown: Did he have any others? About a hundred, he replied. Chapel Hill’s Algonquin Books duly started publishing Brown. Not surprisingly, short-story collections came first. Then a string of novels (including Father and Son and Fay) and a recent book of essays. In 2002, a movie based on Brown’s short-story collection Big Bad Love was released. Arliss Howard directed and starred, alongside Debra Winger and Rosanna Arquette.

Yet if The Rabbit Factory is filmed, it’d be best left to the hands of director Robert Altman. In its structure — the handful of characters, the artful overlapping of multiple story lines — the novel seems to have as its spiritual antecedent movies like The Player and, especially, Nashville.

As funny as Brown’s writing is, his tone is dark and dire. His characters careen wildly toward their fates like so many pinballs. Some may end up OK; some, Brown seems to say, never stood a chance: Imagine a Greek tragedy interspersed with some pretty good raunchy jokes, and you get the idea.

To understand Brown’s alchemy of the ridiculous and the moving, it helps to look to one of the book’s most noble characters, a dog named Jada Pinkett. (As celebrity name-dropping goes, it’s the most dazzling canine name in fiction since Sammy Davis Jr. Jr., the flatulent mutt in Jonathan Safran Foer’s Everything Is Illuminated)

Making the riff even funnier are the dual facts that Jada Pinkett is a) a pit bull and b) a male. And yet even Jada Pinkett, it seems, has sad stuff in him. Raised as a fighting dog in the country, he peaked in the pits. Unable to fight or sire, Jada was slotted for death when his young master Eric plucked him up and ran away with him to Memphis.

Jada Pinkett has several scenes in the book, and he steals each of them. During one heart-stirring moment, my eyes welled and it occurred to me: When a book has you growing misty over a dog named after actor Will Smith’s wife, there is, indeed, some dark magic at work.

Larry Brown reads at Malaprop’s Bookstore/Cafe (55 Haywood St.) on Saturday, Sept. 27 at 7 p.m. Call 254-6734 for more information.

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