Byline: Stephen Goode, SPECIAL TO THE WASHINGTON TIMES
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. …