Required Reading

IN NOVELS LIKE Dirty Work (1989) and Father and Son (1996) and in nonfiction books like On Fire (1994), his memoir of 17 years as a firefighter, Larry Brown captured the hardscrabble American South with clarity, tenderness, and piercing honesty, establishing himself as a leading voice in the genre known as "grit lit." His final novel fortifies that position with barbed wire. Set in Brown's preferred literary turf of rural Mississippi, A Miracle of Catfish (ALGONQUIN, $27) covers a year in the lives of several down-and-out men and a ten-year-old boy. Each struggles with unfulfilled dreams and failed relationships, and each shares the desire to cast in a pond that a salty old farmer named Cortez Sharp is digging—and stocking with catfish—on land he's worked his entire life. As the fishing hole slowly takes shape, Sharp loses his wife, contemplates his darkest secrets, and struggles with his own mortality. "As far as he could see, there wasn't going to be any really convenient time to go," Brown writes. "So he was hoping just to keep going." Those words will have particular resonance for his loyal readers and friends, of which I was both; Larry Brown died suddenly in November 2004, at age 53, while working on this book. Despite its designation as an "incomplete work"—the novel ends with Brown's rough outline for the final two or three chapters—its dry wit and gorgeous intimacy with the natural world make it as satisfying as anything Brown wrote. At the end of its 464 pages, the only thing readers will miss is the craftsman himself.—STEVEN RINELLA

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Larry Brown

Larry Brown


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Eighteenth-century adventurer John Ledyard, writes Bill Gifford in Ledyard: In Search of the First American Explorer (Harcourt, $25), "almost single-handedly established the archetype of the restless American wanderer." After dramatically dropping out of Dartmouth in 1773 (he paddled away from campus in a homemade canoe), Ledyard sailed the Pacific with Captain James Cook, explored the west coastof North America, and trekked solo across much of Russia. His pluck, charm, and appetite for travel were legendary; though constantly broke, he talked his way out of trouble and into expedition sponsorships. "No matter how settled we may be," writes Gifford in this entertaining biography,"a part of us longs to follow his path." —DIANNA DELLING

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