When Brad Watson’s remarkable short story collection The Last Days of the Dog Men first appeared, I kept gifting it to readers I know. Read it, Read it, Read it I would say and let me know if it’s as good as I think it is. Those who followed my exhortation tended to agree with me. Finally somebody said to me “I love it, but you gave me this same book last year.” I told her to keep it and pass it on and I gave her another book to replace it.
I have known great dogs all of my life and no writer has ever captured a dog’s essence in quite the way that Watson does in that compulsively readable and often brilliant first short story collection.
Watson followed up Last Days … with the fine novel The Heaven of Mercury and then Aliens in the Prime of Their Lives, a second short story collection full of mystique and wonder. Now his second novel, Miss Jane, is on the shelves. It is a book of painstaking empathy and precision inspired in part by the true story of one of Watson’s great-aunts.
The title character, Jane Chisholm, is born before her organs are fully developed and has a genital birth defect which obliterates the demarcation between her reproductive, bowel, and urinary functions. This does not sound like a promising premise for a fascinating and distinctive novel but in Brad Watson’s skilled hands Jane overcomes the odds and her handicaps to live a full and courageous life and that singular life is the book’s clear focus.
Watson tells the story in a straightforward and fluid way, avoiding maudlin sentimentality, and exploring the life of Jane while skillfully rendering the few people in her orbit in a rural area near the fictional town of Mercury, Mississippi (which has much in common with Watson’s home town of Meridian).
Jane’s parents, Ida and Sylvester, are stoic and grim, accepting their troubles as their due and finding ways to blame themselves for both Jane’s careless conception and her physical challenges. The married couple has long drifted away from each other and each tries to find ways to find peace and calm in their existence. Jane’s older sister, Grace, is anything but graceful as she schemes and connives to remove herself from her parents’ farm and move to town.
Most interesting of all Jane’s acquaintances is Dr. Eldred Thompson, the country doctor who makes a special effort to cultivate and educate Jane from the moment of her birth. The frank and honest relationship between the woman and her doctor makes a striking centerpiece for a unique and brave novel.
Watson’s ability to provide much detail in a sparse and efficient matter is a hallmark of his work and he is at his peak in Miss Jane. He weaves his story seamlessly and compellingly and a life passes before the reader without interruption. Jane is a toddler and suddenly five years have passed and she’s going to school; Jane is an adolescent and suddenly she is working with her sister as a young woman in Mercury. Jane becomes an old woman.
Without dwelling on Jane’s challenges, Watson shows a girl – later a woman – who finds ways to control her incontinence and mostly successfully keep it from interfering with her functioning in the world around her. He presents a vivid character forced by biology and culture to live a solitary life but shows that it can be a satisfying and fulfilling one, and one perhaps more successful than the flawed conventional lives of those she encounters.
Jane comes to an early realization that child-bearing and a “normal” sex life are beyond her capabilities and comes to a calm and healthy acceptance of the facts of life as they apply to her circumstances. Even so, a beautiful young man, Elijah, falls for her and she for him and Jane immediately begins to calculate how far she can allow the teenage romance to progress. Jane and Elijah’s delicate and bittersweet relationship is acutely explored until the time when the doctor and Jane’s family decide it is in the best interest of both to put a stop to it. It’s interesting that this same theme of the world making decisions about the sensual life of one with disabilities is also explored in Jeannie Thompson’s The Myth of Water, a series of poems about the life of Helen Keller. Well-meaning “normal” people are not always aware of the spiritual harm they might inflict by looking out for the perceived “best interests” of others.
I knew Brad Watson casually when we were both students at Alabama. He was known as a serious and skilled writer even then and his composure and bearing always seemed to take him above the muck and petty politics that occasionally mar the creative graduate school experience. Writer Barry Hannah was teaching at Alabama at the time Brad Watson was there and when Watson’s work began to be published Hannah’s great quote was “Only the Irish geniuses wrote like this.”
It is always an especially exciting time when one can open a crisp new book by Brad Watson. With Miss Jane he has created a character that will endure and inspire. Read it, Read it, Read it …