Pop quiz: what are Magnolia and Nashville and what do they have in common with Larry Brown's new novel, The Rabbit Factory?Answer: Magnolia and Nashville (a 1975 Robert Altman classic) are films, comparable in style and structure to The Rabbit Factory. All are sprawling sagas of richly drawn characters whose lives intertwine, collide and explode as the plot unfolds. Set in another Tennessee city, Memphis (though without the music industry slant), Brown's narrative brings the lives of sundry sorts together in unpredictable but plausible fashion. He has a knack for creating sympathy for the most unsympathetic, unsavory types, even desperados like Domino, the butcher/murderer who might never have hurt anyone if he had just gotten away with his road-kill venison. When the ruthless brother of the cop he killed gets hold of him, our empathy is with Domino, who was left in a garbage can as an infant, who has never known real lovemaking, and who has no one to turn to and nowhere to hide. But perhaps the greatest strength of this book lies in Brown's ability to create a cautionary tale underlying the masterful web of personal stories; like the old cartoon where there's a devil on one shoulder of the conflicted person and an angel on the other, these characters are often faced with a choice between what their conscience is telling them, and what their carnal, animalistic self desires.
Helen really doesn't want to be a cheating wife, but she drinks too much, and time and again her body overrules her mind. Merlot should come clean with the new woman in his life about what he's hiding at home, but the awkwardness silences him. Anjalee is beautiful enough and talented enough to take other walks in life, but she works as a prostitute and is shy about her drawings.
There is a mesmerizing sequence in Magnolia in which each seemingly isolated character sings a small section of the hauntingly beautiful song "Wise Up," which would work for these characters as well. They too are connected, not only by the intersecting threads of their lives, but by the similar burdens they bear the weight of their own frailties and failings. A postscript: if you failed the quiz, why not wise up, rent the two movies, read The Rabbit Factory, and make your own connections?