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Rich with characters, Larry Brown’s latest lacks a coherent plot

Rich with characters, Larry Brown’s latest lacks a coherent plot

Like most of Larry Brown’s work, The Rabbit Factory takes place in and around Memphis. Arthur, nearing 70, is mournfully coping with impotence and the prospect of losing Helen, 40, his highly amorous, increasingly absent wife. Helen, meanwhile, has set her sights on Eric, a twentysomething pet shop employee hired by Arthur to catch a feral cat in the neighborhood. Elsewhere in the city, a hard-luck ex-con named Domino makes halfhearted attempts to stay clean despite taking a job in a meat business run by a mob boss called Mr. Hamburger. Domino soon discovers something—or someone—fishy in the ground beef.

Add to that mix a sympathetic call girl, Anjalee, who breaks several lonely hearts while plying her trade; a hopeless romantic boxer/sailor named Wayne; a skinny-legged white professor, Merlot; his passionate lover, the voluptuous African American cop, Penelope; Miss Muffett, the lovelorn housekeeper whose prosthetic leg, in the novel’s most Southern gothic and darkly comic twist, is stolen in her sleep and buried by her employer’s dog; and a host of others. Calling this a character-driven book is an understatement.

The problem is that the book doesn’t work as a novel at all; it riffs endlessly on its quirky characters and settings but eschews plot entirely. To be sure, there’s great novelistic potential in each of these characters. Even the animals featured here—which include a murderous pitbull and a three-legged lion, in addition to the rabbits of the novel’s title—are superbly drawn. But the characters themselves rarely cross paths, and never in a way that yields conflict, much less resolution. Had Brown constructed The Rabbit Factory as a series of short-form exercises, this lack of interconnection wouldn’t be such a foul. In his taut early novels Joe and Dirty Work, Brown proved fully capable of deriving something greater than the sum of the book’s disparate parts. But not this time.

Still, he manages to conjure moments of tragedy, alarm and bleak comedy in The Rabbit Factory. But it’s the glimmers here of vintage Brown—note-perfect working-class dialogue, grisly violence, raunchy humor—that make its ultimate failure as a coherent work so frustrating.

—Jonathan Flax

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