Hurricane Katrina ruined thousands of lives in 2005, but for Henry Garrett, a 41-year-old New Orleans native and former high school English teacher, “he had already managed, before the hurricane, to lose everything.” When he leaves the city before the levees break, he doesn’t yet know that tragedy will shatter his hometown. The only disaster he knows is the life he’s escaping. “A Thousand Miles from Nowhere,” the new novel by John Gregory Brown, is a quiet examination of the mistakes Henry has made, the family curses he can’t control, and the challenges of dealing with grief and personal failings.
After three days of driving, Henry winds up at a Lynchburg, Virginia, motel. Its proprietor is an Indian woman named Latangi, a lonely widow who, unlike Henry, knows that New Orleans is under water and tells him he can stay with her for as long as he wishes.
Much of first third of the book consists of flashbacks from Henry’s past, including the time his father, before abandoning his wife and children, warns his son of the family’s madness, “a fascinating but exquisitely grotesque family heirloom.” Henry inherits the heirloom and now suffers from “clatter and chaos,” a never-ending procession of “crooked, winding, aimless thoughts” and disturbing dreams.
In nicely understated scenes, Brown shows the many ways in which the clatter devastated Henry. He gave up his teaching job and bought an old grocery store frequented by the town’s oddest characters. His marriage to Amy, a celebrated cookbook author, suffers from his changes in behavior. Amy now lives near Lynchburg, so Henry decides to try to reconcile with her and with his estranged only sibling, his sister Mary, who lives in Baltimore.
But unforeseen events complicate his plans. The first is relatively benign: Latangi asks him to read an unexpectedly brilliant unpublished poem by her deceased husband, Mohit. The second is far more consequential: Henry inadvertently kills a convict, an elderly black man, who escapes his work crew and steps in front of Henry’s moving car.
As is often the case with too much backstory, the flashbacks in “A Thousand Miles from Nowhere” undercut the story’s tension. The frequent return to quiet scenes from Henry’s past is especially jarring when juxtaposed with the horror of Katrina.
The novel is much more compelling when Brown sticks with present-day action. He has created memorable characters, the best of which is Marge Brockman, kind-hearted secretary to a town judge. She’s a delight, a religious woman who drives a red convertible, adopts Henry as her “personal project,” and is brazen enough to swipe a badge from the judge’s desk drawer and pass herself off as a sheriff’s deputy in an encounter with the police.
Even at its weakest, “A Thousand Miles from Nowhere” abounds with vivid descriptions, as when Henry says that craziness “was the most distinctive and persistent of the Garrett traits, the deep dark cleft in their familial chin.” As Brown shows in this sensitive novel, personal problems and natural disasters have something in common. You can try to escape them, but eventually, painful as they may be, you have to confront the consequences.
A version of this review appeared in the January 29, 2017, issue of the Philadelphia Inquirer.