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Gulf Toast

How Brad Watson's Grim, Witty Debut Novel Made Him the New Darling of Southern Lit

By Frank Diller | Posted 10/23/2002

Brad Watson's fictional town of Mercury, Miss., sits somewhere between the Gulf coast and the great beyond. It's a place where parents outlive their children, the undertaker's wife plays dead in bed, and the 89-year-old editor of the community paper bangs out obituaries on a manual typewriter.

But death doesn't translate into loss in Watson's fine debut novel, The Heaven of Mercury. His survey of a "town of twenty thousand that had been twenty thousand now for almost the entire century" weaves the departed into the memories and waking life of the people left behind. The characters, Watson says in a recent phone interview, "have a preoccupation with their own imminent deaths. Their regret, their sense of life having an elegiac quality, I think is maybe testament to the sense I have that the dead aren't really dead."

Heaven's fantasy elements are a stylistic departure for Watson, 46, whose critically acclaimed 1996 short-story collection, The Last Days of the Dog-Men, offered a stark examination of the relationships and parallels between man and beast. "The language in general is more often lyrical and takes a few more risks," Watson says. "I knew that . . . it would become a book that you either like or you hate . . . . It was the only way that I could tell the story."

Inspired by his grandmother's life, the history of the Gulf coast, and his hometown of Meridian, Miss., Watson imagines a town populated by infidelity, racism, experiments on the dead, and regret. The announcement that Watson is a National Book Award finalist, apparently beating out another first-time novelist whose Lovely Bones have rattled around the bestseller's list for months, only enhances the tale of a writer who borrowed from his past to complete a work years after his initial success. After all, it took a while for Watson to get to Heaven.

"It was a difficult book to get started on," he says, describing "four years of false starts" and another couple of years to get a handle on the structure. "I just wrote around in the book so that [its] origin became obscured for me and the book came out of itself."

Watson connects an ensemble cast through Finus Bates, editor of the Mercury Comet and a local radio host. In 1906, a cyclone decimates the town and prompts young Finus to first see his childhood sweetheart Birdie Wells. Birdie's subsequent marriage to a shoe salesman, who slips women between the sheets faster than he can put them in a pair of comfortable flats, fails to extinguish Finus' infatuation. Instead, he maintains their friendship as both endure loveless marriages, the loss of children and grandchildren, and attacks on Birdie's reputation after the untimely death of her philandering husband.

Watson attributes Birdie's origins and marital discord to his grandmother's life. But when he started creating the character, he says, "I had to write about her in ways that I couldn't see my grandmother and I had to get beyond that. But the spirit of Birdie is like my grandmother, so I had to write with apologies to [her] for the liberties I took."

Several subplots in Heaven parallel the "infatuation at first sight" of Finus and Birdie--particularly, the actions of local undertaker Parnell Grimes. As a teenager, he revives a comatose girl mistakenly brought to his father's funeral home by climbing onto, and into, her. Parnell later marries a woman who placates his latent necrophilia by pretending to pass out and staying unnaturally limp when making love. In the shadow of Watson's black humor, the kinky relationship becomes the most stable in the book. It also accentuates a theme of obsessive first impressions.

"It's the idea that those kinds of first encounters have such a defining effect on the way someone sees themselves in relation to the world," Watson says. "It's something that defines the arc of their lives and usually not to a very good end."

In terms of his own literary career, Watson had to break from his life's trajectory in order to re-establish it. He published his first story in 1981, earned an MFA from the University of Alabama in 1985, and then quit writing fiction. "I was disgusted with my own work and . . . I wasn't going to do it unless I couldn't keep myself from [it]," he says.

Watson worked for a series of newspapers on the Gulf coast and didn't return to fiction until after joining the faculty of the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa in 1988. "By [1992] or '93," he says, "things started to click again. I think I generally loosened up a lot and took more risks [with my] narrative voice. . . . I felt like writing wasn't any fun when I quit . . . so when I went back, I decided that I could write loosely [and] pare it down instead of writing tight and squeezing it out."

In recent years, Watson has been a writer-in-residence at Harvard University and currently teaches at the University of West Florida in Pensacola, but he appreciates the time spent outside of academia. He credits journalism with helping him to become a less self-conscious writer and to tell other people's stories. It was this newfound perspective that yielded the Dog-Men tales, including "Seeing Eye," told from the perspective of a blind man's guide, and "Kindred Spirits," a dark story of lust, murder, and dangerously good barbecue originally published in a shorter version in Oxford American magazine.

"My time as a reporter," he adds, "was important in gathering material for this book 10 years later." Some of the major events in Heaven, including the tremendous storm of 1906 that dislocated the citizens it didn't kill, are directly based on the history of the Gulf coast.

Watson also uses the newsroom to briefly address the growing homogenization of regional voices. Near the end of the novel, Finus talks to a colleague whose "fading Michigan twang now warbled into some kind of new American generic fostered by television and a misplaced embarrassment over accents in general, a psychological and self-imposed diaspora of the regional self."

When asked if he agrees with Finus' assessment, it becomes clear that a diminished regional voice is a loss for an author who can effectively echo it. "Yeah," Watson says, "I think that the way people speak is becoming homogenized. I know a lot of Southerners who don't sound that Southern themselves because they've been around. They become chameleons to a sort of degree. . . . Every now and then you met someone who's educated, who's well-traveled, and who still sounds like a big hick, and it's heartening."

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