“I’m not much of a critic but more an enthusiast,” Robert Birnbaum wrote Xpress.
Be that as it may, book “enthusiasts” everywhere should check out identitytheory.com, a literary Web site that counts as its chief attraction a trove of author interviews Birnbaum’s conducted over the years with writers as diverse as Julian Barnes, ZZ Packer, Richard Russo — and even the reclusive Donna Tartt.
Having heard Birnbaum was a fan of Brown’s latest opus, we approached him for an e-mail chat about what makes Rabbit run.
Mountain Xpress: “As a reader, what did you appreciate most about The Rabbit Factory?”
Robert Birnbaum: “The switching within Brown’s large ensemble of characters keeps up a high energy level, and the variety of those characters (including a dog) created a high level of natural interest. … [And] somehow the fast pace and various odd plots don’t become cartoonish or, uh, over the top. The characters stayed real for me despite some borderline improbabilities.”
MX: “For a very funny book, Rabbit Factory has a lot of lonely people in it. Did the dual funniness and sadness of this book strike you, too?”
RB: “Well, sure. Not to be banal, but that’s life. Or as the Hungarians say, ‘Life is like licking honey from a thorn.'”
MX: “What do you make of Brown being a Southern writer? And from Oxford, Miss. [the home of Faulkner, Welty and others] to boot? Do you think he fits the mold, or is he breaking it?”
RB: “I don’t think there is a mold. I am familiar with and have talked to a number of so-called Southern writers — Allan Gurganus, Reynolds Price, Richard Ford, Tom Franklin, Brad Watson, Donna Tartt — and I am sure that it’s irritating to be asked questions about what’s Southern writing or whether one is a Southern writer. Which doesn’t stop me from asking, since I have no axe to grind and it’s something of an issue. That is, regional writing is an issue.”
MX: [After a discussion of God, Westerns and moral codes.] “Also, speaking of God, I couldn’t figure out where Brown, as a writer, stood in relation to his creations in the book. Is he benevolent? Is he laughing at them? Does he feel sympathy … or all those things?”
RB: “What’s appealing about Rabbit Factory is that Brown does in fact show his characters great respect and compassion (one might even say ‘love’). I think that’s what good storytelling does, it makes you care about the characters. And I don’t think the reader can, if the writer doesn’t. Your question makes me think of Randy Newman’s ‘God’s Song’ — where God is talking about the fact that he loves mankind because man loves him in spite of all the horrible things God inflicts on him.”