All three of John Gregory Brown’s extraordinary, earlier novels—Decorations in a Ruined Cemetery (1994), The Wrecked, Blessed Body of Sheldon La Fleur (1996), and Audubon’s Watch (2002)—are strongly rooted in New Orleans. The city haunts many of his characters. These works were published during an eight-year span, an incredible accomplishment for any writer. And, now, fourteen years later, Brown’s fourth novel, A Thousand Miles from Nowhere, takes us back to the great city as it is flooded, undergoing the ravages of Hurricane Katrina, and a thousand miles away. The distance and the years are important. The hurricane and the lives of Brown’s characters are meshed together, inseparable, as the city (where he was born) and the trauma of the hurricane are in Brown’s work and obviously his own life.
Curiously, as the story begins, Henry Garrett is already a thousand miles away from New Orleans. He’s driven non-stop to a small town in Virginia, after running away from his job and his marriage—just before the arrival of the hurricane. Checking into a modest motel, he does not understand the remarks of the Indian woman at the desk, when she says to him, “With our compliments, Mr. Garrett…. Tonight, tomorrow. As long as you would like to be our guest. We cannot do so much, but this we can do. You have lost everything, yes?” It’s only when he switches on the TV in his room that he is aware of the extent of the horrors in New Orleans, the scope of the damage.
Henry Garrett acts as if he’s walked out of a novel by Ann Tyler, another Southern writer with whom Brown shares a number of similarities. It’s not that he’s quit his job as a high school teacher or left his wife, but as Brown tells us, “…he had quit his life—or he had tried to quit it and had failed. He had failed because he could not clear his head, could not remove all the detritus there, the clutter….” He hadn’t been a bad teacher; the students probably thought he was a good one, but he ignored the curriculum and pretty much taught what he wanted. When he told his principal that he was leaving, no attempt was made to keep him.
Then there’s the matter of the grocery store—or what once was a grocery store, sort of like what once was his life. After he moved out from his wife, he used the inheritance from his mother’s death and purchased a run-down building that had once been the “Fresh and Friendly” supermarket. Like almost everything else in his life, the store’s neon sign was broken, illuminating only its last five letters: “Endly,” an obvious comment on his own life. Henry lets the store become a kind of thrift shop, where people can drop off items they no longer need in their lives. The entire incident involving Endly’s is eccentric, hinting at the instability of so many people’s lives, including Henry’s. A number of customers hang out in the store, including a Basque émigré searching for his brother, a famous Basque writer. Other regulars include artists who leave their work at the store, hoping that customers will be drawn to their works and purchase them. What seems totally in character for Henry is that he’s never taken out a license to sell goods in the store. Everything seems to be a bit of a jumble, with no order to anything at Endly’s.
Amy, his wife—a culinary writer of international cookbooks—has been gone much of the time, traveling overseas, an obvious contribution to their broken-down marriage. Henry understands that she believes he is indecisive, unable to get a grip on things or his life. The hurricane becomes the “final nudge he’d needed to truly leave his life behind,” although he may also be searching for Amy, who left New Orleans three months earlier. All he knows is that she’s somewhere in Virginia, finishing a book—no doubt one reason Henry has driven the thousand miles away from the great city of his life.
The owner of the motel is a late middle-aged Indian woman whose name is Latangi, a widow, whose husband’s life interest was writing an epic poem based on Hindu mythology. It doesn’t take too long for us to understand that she had her own reason for saying that Henry can stay in her motel for as long as he wants, at no charge. Once she’s discovered that he has been an English teacher, she has her own agenda. She wants to convince Henry to read her husband’s lengthy poem and determine if it is of any significance.
There are other memorable characters, mostly people from the town where Henry has arrived after his thousand-mile drive, many of them also wanting to help him once they learn that he’s a survivor of the hurricane. Add to these characters Henry’s memories of his own deceased parents, plus his sister, and the chemistry that has shaped his life (his work, his marriage, his flight) become a toxic cauldron of painful moments. He is fully aware that his own departure replicates the time in his childhood when his own father simply left the family and was never seen again.
A Thousand Miles from Nowhere is a rich, complex story, full of quirky characters, incidents, and unexpected events—all of them eventually pointing in the direction of homecoming, the power of literature, the possibility of redemption. Brown pulls on classic literature of the past, especially archetypal patterns of the hero’s return, creating a work of great maturity. No wonder the lengthy span between this novel and his earlier ones. The story is also a profound commentary on the disaster in New Orleans and how a country almost failed to understand what was happening. Read the novel and cry but also read the story and smile.
John Gregory Brown: A Thousand Miles from Nowhere
Little, Brown, 276 pp., $26