I first met Brad Watson back in 1997, when my wife and I were living in East Dennis, Massachusetts, on the bay side of Cape Cod. Brad was already 40 when his first book, the short-story collection Last Days of the Dog-Men, was published, and the critical acclaim it received led to a prestigious five-year appointment as a Briggs-Copeland Lecturer in Fiction at Harvard. Brad was born in Meridian, Mississippi, and having spent much of his life in the South, he liked to play up the Beverly Hillbillies aspect of his move north—the country bumpkin strolling into Harvard Yard with a piece of straw between his teeth. He was anything but a rube, and he became one of the school’s most popular teachers, though he did make one bumpkin-like decision in choosing to live not in the urban mix of Cambridge, but an hour and a half away from campus, in the wilds of off-season Cape Cod.
We were introduced by a mutual friend, another southern writer. I’ll never forget that first drunken dinner at Brad’s house, when he served coq au vin that you could gum off the bone. We drank too much—this would become a repeated theme—and at one point he confided that he had a 26-year-old son from an earlier marriage. I did a little math and figured that meant he’d had his son when he was 16. “You really are a southerner,” I blurted. Not the kind of thing you want to ever say, but especially not on a first friend date. When he laughed instead of scolding me for my stereotyping, I knew it was the beginning of a beautiful friendship.
The next year, Brad rented a place less than a mile away from us, right on the beach. It was a spectacular house where you could lie in bed and stare out at the rocks and the ocean and every now and then see a breaching whale, and where, on the rocky beach below, you could find stranded loggerhead or Kemp’s ridley turtles and the cadavers of coyotes and see winter shorebirds like dovekies and gannets. The wind never stopped whipping across the bay and hitting the side of the house with such force that it was hard to open the door in winter. The wind lent a drama to the place that verged on melodrama, making you imagine you were living inside the pages of Wuthering Heights.
It’s hard not to romanticize the year we lived down the street from each other, and I need to remind myself that there were problems for all of us—career-related, familial, marital, even chemical—that made the year less than romantic. But I still can’t help but look back somewhat hazily on that time, particularly after the summer people left. Brad and I would go for runs around the cranberry bog, and between heavy breaths and plodding steps, we’d bat back and forth the plots of the books that were obsessing us. Often, I would find that he understood the literary allusion I was making or that I understood his, or that we had read the same book, and soon, each of us was reading books on the other’s suggestion. One thing I loved about those runs is the way our talk ranged from the high to the low. Low crude jokes, occasional high insight. And plenty of shoptalk too: books, sure, but also ways to get ourselves started, to make sure that each day we sat ourselves down and got to typing.
Nightly boozing was also part of the year’s ritual. (I later suggested to Brad that his biography should be called The Sodden Heart.) Brad would sip whiskey, slouched in his chair, I would swill many beers, and my wife, Nina, would drink white wine. If this wasn’t the stuff of the Algonquin Round Table, it worked okay for me. There I was, living on my favorite place on earth, and now I had a dear friend right down the road, someone who understood the daily wrestling match with words and the constant career disappointments—the envy and bitterness and failure, the way the game was so obviously rigged. Every night we drank together, and we laughed about it all.
Brad Watson died last July from cardiac failure. His wife, Nell, tried to give him CPR, but by the time they arrived at the hospital, he was already dead. I have spent the many months since then grieving this loss and also thinking of Nell, who happens to be an old friend of mine.
It was on Cape Cod that Brad got together with Nell. We were setting Nell up with another old friend, and we’d invited Brad over so that it wouldn’t be so awkward. After dinner, Nell was walking up by the high tide line and we were all down by the low tide line. It was time for our friend to make his move. Instead, Brad did.
Although Brad’s time at Harvard was too complicated to call a triumph, there were moments of triumph. One was when he imported two of his favorite southern writers, Barry Hannah and Padgett Powell, to speak to a packed house in the Thompson Room below a portrait of Teddy Roosevelt. Hannah, who was very sick at the time, teared up at the podium, invoking Faulkner’s narrator of Absalom, Absalom! by saying that he felt “like Quentin Compson come to Harvard”—and that now he knew “this southern boy has made good.”
Brad not only started publishing late but also went a good while between books, not out of any traditional version of writer’s block—that is, out of paucity—but rather out of excess, many different plots competing for prominence in his mind. He finally bore down and, during his last two years in Massachusetts, he finished his novel The Heaven of Mercury. Set in Mississippi, it is the story of the mournful and pensive Finus Bates and his unrequited love for Birdie Wells, whom he falls for after spying her doing a cartwheel in the buff. The novel is a magnificent act of literary ventriloquism, with Brad flitting from one character to the next—from Finus to Birdie to Birdie’s maid, Creasie—inhabiting each fully and convincingly. What he was able to do was render an entire world from the materials of his imagined Mississippi town, one that is complex, rich, and devastatingly sad.
It doesn’t always happen that your favorite books come from your favorite people. I’ve read a lot of friends’ work that I’ve had to politely praise, but Brad’s book was an exception. I had heard him talk about it often enough on those runs around the bog, but even bad writers can sometimes talk beautifully about their work in the abstract. But the thing itself, the final book, was, and remains, a delight. There is an element of caricature—like the description of Finus’s mother as a “poor God-ravaged grackle of a woman.” Or this line about a horse named Dan: “A long, slow fart flabbered from the proud black lips of Dan’s hole.” Or when Brad compares Mrs. Urquhart’s heart to a “shriveled potato.” And there is an element of the grotesque, like the scenes of necrophilia or the final mystery of an actual shriveled heart. But this is a humanized grotesquerie.
Critics drew comparisons to the usual southern suspects, Faulkner and O’Connor and Welty, as well as throwing the name García Márquez around, because of the magical scenes at the end. But I was reminded of the early Cormac McCarthy, not the cowboy stuff, but the books Brad had turned me on to, the McCarthy of Child of God and, less so, of Suttree. The difference, to my mind, was that Brad’s work was better: it scumbled the surface of language and surprised in a similar fashion, but as well as being a pleasure on a language level, it told a story about very human characters, something McCarthy, for all his achievement and renown, does not do.
For me, The Heaven of Mercury is not only a majestic book, it’s one of our greatest contemporary novels. This might sound like hokum or, even worse, like that lowest and most deceitful of things: a blurb. But it’s true. Happily, Brad’s accomplishment did not go unrecognized. Heaven was a great critical success and a finalist for the National Book Award in 2002. For my money, it should have won. And I was proud to have been mentioned in the acknowledgments, with a simple and practical phrase that might have easily come from one of our runs: “Thanks to David Gessner for urging me to get on with it.”
In the years after we were neighbors on Cape Cod, I saw Brad only occasionally and for very short periods of time. After Brad’s stint in Cambridge ended, he headed back to the South to teach. Meanwhile, in 2003, Nina and I moved a thousand miles south to an overdeveloped island off the Carolina coast. During my first years in the South, I couldn’t seem to shake thoughts of displacement, a feeling that my move was a kind of exile. One morning on the beach, I heard a loon cry, and though my field guide told me that those birds winter as far south as Florida, the eerie yodeling sounded out of place, a melancholy song of the North. I watched the pelicans dive for a while, twisting down into the water, following their divining-rod bills, and thought about how exotic they would look plunging into Cape Cod Bay. I had been trying to write a novel, a book set on Cape Cod, but I was having trouble dredging up the specifics of my old home, despite combing the dozen or so journals on the bookshelf next to my desk. That morning, instead of getting to work, I decided to check my email and saw a message from Brad: he had quit his most recent teaching job and moved to a cabin in Foley, Alabama, near the Gulf of Mexico, to be close to his son Owen. He wrote:
I am now officially a hermit, and man you’re right, it feels good, feels right. The beard’s back after an eight-month absence, hair sticking up all around the bald spot like wild grass on the rim of a blighted field. This old house smells like woodsmoke. The other night, Owen said, “The smell of this house reminds me of the smell of a house on Cape Cod,” and he was talking about the old Gessner house. So I suppose right now I’m the southern version of you in those days.
As I slowly came to terms with my state of voluntary exile, I thought of Brad writing a novel about a Mississippi town from the windswept beaches of Cape Cod. There is a tradition of writing about places after you have left them, a tradition every bit as strong as that of writing while in a place, and I began to see the advantages of holding a place at arm’s length. I saw the time we were on Cape Cod as a story with a beginning and an end, an epoch in our lives, and could make sense of it in a way I never could while in its midst. Eventually I had to stop equivocating and get down to the business of writing. Exile is just another excuse for stopping at the imaginative threshold. As Brad might have advised me: get on with it.
In 2005, Brad and Nell moved to Laramie so that he could teach in the newly founded graduate writing program at the University of Wyoming. There was something about living in Wyoming, he told me, that reminded him of winters on Cape Cod. This may offend the regional pride of westerners, but I knew what he meant. He wasn’t getting dressed up to go places. The wind and the snow were isolating. A blessing and a curse for most writers, maybe more of a curse for Brad than most, as much as a part of him loved the loneliness. “A charismatic depressive,” I called him the other day. If you asked Brad, “How are you?” you better have some time on your hands. He would actually answer your question and in some detail. He was a gentle, charming man, funny and caring, but he had more demons than most people. Brad was a born storyteller, and you would consider yourself lucky if you got to hear him spinning a long tale, told with that voice that was both rough and kind, inflected with his Mississippi accent.
After high school, Brad had moved to California, but the death of his older brother, Clay, brought him home to Mississippi. (He worked as a bartender at his father’s bar before enrolling at community college, Mississippi State, and then grad school in Tuscaloosa, where he studied with Barry Hannah.) He talked about his father’s early death from a heart attack and admitted his fear of the same. In the days following Brad’s death, I was overcome by the urge to talk to him. One of the first things we would have no doubt said was that it was his heart that ended up getting him. I’m pretty sure we would have laughed about that. He would have shaken his head and said, “Of course.”
In 2008, we almost became neighbors again. Wyoming was flush with fracking money and the writing program was off to a great start. The department offered me a professorship, the opportunity to start and edit a magazine, and a lot more money than I was then making. What’s more, my wife was offered a job as a professor too. It would be the Cape all over again, only with mountains. We had 48 hours to decide.
When I had gone out for the interview, it was bitter cold and the wind made the Cape wind seem mild. Brad and I went cross-country skiing in the nearby mountains, Brad’s first time ever, and we drank like old times. But I was a father now. My daughter, Hadley, would have been four, almost five back then, and just starting preschool, and though I could picture myself in the West, when I did, I saw us huddled together in a sod house on the high plains. We ended up saying no.
The last time I saw Brad was about two years ago. This was after he’d published his astonishing novel Miss Jane, based on the life of a great-aunt of his who had lived in rural, early-20th-century Mississippi. We were housesitting for a month in Boulder, and Brad came down from Laramie to visit. Our typical get-togethers with Boulder friends usually involved some sort of vigorous hike or bike ride, followed by a couple beers. But Brad would be arriving at noon and not leaving until the next morning, and he had not brought any workout clothes. And so, we drank and told stories.
At one point, a Boulder friend came over for a visit and ended up listening to us for a while. Brad and I began competing to see which of us had written more unpublished books. We weren’t talking about mere drafts. We were talking about books that we had worked on over the course of many years and had, in our minds at least, finished, but that were never published. As I remember it, I “won” with something like eight books to his seven. My list included that Cape Cod novel that I’d written off the Carolina coast.
I’d like to find out more about what was on Brad’s list. I’d like to head out to Laramie, when Nell feels ready, and, if she’s willing, offer to help her look through those unfinished manuscripts. Brad is gone, I get that.
But I’d like, to the degree it is really possible, for his words to live on.
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