If New Orleans and Louisiana are truly literary muses, they have served novelist John Gregory Brown exceptionally well in such fine novels as “Decorations in a Ruined Cemetery,” “The Wrecked, Blessed Body of Shelton Lafleur,” and “Audubon’s Watch.”
Now in his fourth novel, “A Thousand Miles from Nowhere,” he brings together his native city with his current home in Virginia in a novel that follows one man’s Hurricane Katrina exile, return and redemption.
Brown comes from an old, extended New Orleans family, so he saw his share of Katrina destruction.
“My mother was still living in the home I was raised in, my childhood home. Like thousands upon thousands, the home had nine feet of water for three weeks because of one of the canals that gave way,” Brown said. “So my childhood home was destroyed.”
But he didn’t set out to write a Katrina novel; he was writing the story of a man in need of redemption.
“I was extremely aware of not trying to write a Katrina novel per se, but I had things I wanted to say about New Orleans and the possible loss of that place and my debt to it. I wanted to honor the terrible damage of it.” Brown said.
“But I also wanted to write about what happens when a life needs to be reconstructed for any particular reason. And in Henry’s case, the storm is a vehicle that propels Henry forward into getting his life back together.”
“A Thousand Miles from Nowhere” is the story of Henry Archer Garrett, whose life is not exactly on an upward trajectory. His wife has left him, he’s quit his job as an English teacher, and he’s squandered his inheritance on a Magazine Street grocery store that quickly devolves into a thrift store where he takes up residence.
As he watches the destruction from his exile in a motel in Marimore, Virginia, Henry realizes he’s lost everything. Thanks to the kindness of strangers who become friends, he starts anew.
“After relocating to Virginia for nearly 20 years, Henry’s trip is kind of making literal what was for me a symbolic trip to orient myself in this new place that I was making home,” Brown said. “It served as an appropriate metaphor for trying to locate my own imagination.”
And then Brown faced the loss of his job at Sweetbriar College, where he and his wife, writer Carrie Brown, both served as professors.
”We left Virginia because it looked as though the college where we taught for 20 years would be closing. I had just finished writing this novel about losing a home, and all of a sudden we faced losing our home, which we did,” he said.
“So we looked for jobs and moved up to Massachusetts and had an amazing year teaching at Deerfield Academy, but along with that came this year of loss. Alumnae came in and saved the college. And now we’ll be moving back — that’s an amazing source of joy for them and for us.”
These are sweet days for the Browns. John’s novel is newly published, Carrie Brown’s novel “The Stargazer’s Sister,” came out recently to great acclaim, and daughter Molly McCully Brown will have her first book of poems, “The Virginia State Colony for Epileptics and Feebleminded” published next year.
And there are other joys on the horizon: Daughter Olivia is expecting her first baby, and son Walker has just graduated from college and is starting a business. And Carrie and John and dog James Brown are moving back home to Virginia.
The title of “A Thousand Miles from Nowhere” comes from a song by Louisiana bluesman Robert Pete Williams.
“I hadn’t heard of the Dwight Yoakum song then,” Brown said. “But the lyrics of that song seem to apply to this story as well. And the amazing thing is that I Googled — as we do now — the distance between New Orleans and this area of Virginia that I’d imagined. And it was a thousand miles. One of those wonderful moments.”
That seems only appropriate for a book of such profound grace and consolation, which reflects one of Brown’s deeply held values.
“I actually believe in literature’s transformative power, its ability to develop empathy in us, its way to make us see the world anew,” he said. “Throughout my novels, there is that idea that art can take us away. In this novel, it’s pretty overtly done. I guess I love preaching that message because it feels as though that’s what it’s done for me in my own life.”
Susan Larson is the host of The Reading Life on WWNO-FM and the author of “The Booklover’s Guide to New Orleans.”