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.
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