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Brad Watson, 64, dies; His southern upbringing animated his books
For “Miss Jane” (2016), his second novel, Watson reimagined a family mystery.

by Richard Sandomir

NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- Brad Watson, whose short stories and novels — including one book inspired by a great-aunt’s anatomical anomaly — came to life largely on the Southern Gulf Coast of his birth, died on July 8 at his home in Laramie, Wyoming. He was 64.

His wife, Nell Hanley, said the cause was cardiac failure.

Watson’s two novels and two short-story collections did not make him a major literary star. But his fiction was often praised for its surreal, bizarre, funny, wild and tender stories about characters who inevitably must transcend difficult moments in their lives. His first novel, “The Heaven of Mercury” (2002), was a National Book Award finalist.

“Brad Watson, white, male and already wise beyond his years when the near-perfect story collection ‘Last Days of the Dog-Men’ was published in 1996,” Amy Grace Loyd wrote in The New York Times in 2016, “has long explored how the peculiarities of our physical selves can be a benediction and a curse (in turns or all at once), how insistently they express nature’s beauty and brutality.”

For “Miss Jane” (2016), his second novel, Watson reimagined a family mystery: His great-aunt Mary Ellis Clay, known as Jane, was born in the late 19th century with a rare birth defect that apparently had a profound effect on her sexual organs and left her incontinent. Relatives had few stories to tell him, and there were no extant medical records to describe her condition. A surviving photo of her showed an attractive teenager who, Watson’s mother said, was popular and enjoyed dances.

“Had she known love, or some version of it?” Watson asked in an interview on the website of his publisher, W.W. Norton. “What, then, happened to that? And everyone said Aunt Jane was a ‘cheerful’ person. Was that true, or a front to cover a long-ago, unavoidable sadness?”

It would take Watson 13 years — time aplenty for medical research and many false starts — to complete “Miss Jane,” which follows Jane Chisolm from her birth on a large Mississippi farm in 1915 through a life of relative isolation — although she does have an almost erotic connection to nature and a lasting friendship with the doctor who delivered her.

“You would not think someone so afflicted would or could be cheerful, not prone to melancholy or the miseries,” Watson wrote. “Early on, she acquired ways of dealing with her life, of life in general. And as she grew older it became evident that she feared almost nothing — perhaps only horses and something she couldn’t quite name, a strange presence of danger, not quite or not really part of the world.”

Reviewing “Miss Jane” in The Washington Post, Aditi Sriram said it “plays on the tongue like an oyster — first salty, then cold — before slipping away to be consumed and digested.”

Wilton Brad Watson was born on July 14, 1955, in Meridian, Mississippi. His father, Robert Earl Watson, ran a shoe store and owned a bar; his mother, Bonnie (Clay) Watson, was an office worker.

As a youngster, Watson did not have writing ambitions. His poor handwriting generated mockery from a teacher, and he did not know how to type.

“Dim child — dreamy but dim,” he once said of himself.

While in high school, he acted in plays at a local theater, which led him to try for a Hollywood career. He headed west with a wife he had married between his junior and senior years and their baby, Jason. But instead of finding acting jobs during a writers’ strike, he collected garbage.

Back home, he enrolled at Meridian Junior College (now Meridian Community College), where he wrote his first short story.

He studied fiction writing at Mississippi State University (he and his wife had split up by then) and wrote a pile of short stories that he himself said were bad. In the spring before he graduated in 1978, he attended a symposium at the University of Alabama, Tuscaloosa, where he hoped to meet the darkly comic writer Barry Hannah, who was teaching there. Watson was headed to the school that fall to start work on a master’s in creative writing.

The two met and spent the day bar hopping. At one point, Hannah said, “as if to himself, ‘You wouldn’t believe how beautiful my wife is naked,’” Watson recalled in “A Short Ride: Remembering Barry Hannah,” a book of essays published two years after Hannah’s death in 2010.

“That was uttered not so much as a statement of wonder,” Watson wrote, “but in the way of words that might lead to physical combat.” When Watson said, “I wouldn’t know,” Hannah “looked at me, steady. ‘You’d better not.’ He didn’t smile. He seemed to mean it.”

That baffling encounter did not deter Hannah from counseling Watson on his work or becoming his friend. And those odd words from Hannah about his wife? It was a line, lifted with some changes, from one of his short stories.

After completing his master’s degree, Watson gave up fiction for a while, unhappy with the quality of his stories. He worked as a reporter and editor at The Montgomery Advertiser, moved on to an advertising agency and then returned to the Tuscaloosa campus to teach.

His “Last Days of the Dog-Men,” a book of short stories, was published in 1996 and won the Sue Kaufman Prize for first fiction from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. Like all his books, it was published by Norton and edited by Alane Mason.

In a tribute on the website Literary Hub, Mason noted some of the quirkiest moments in Watson’s work, including a description of a dog watching a streetlight change; the “most noble account of an old man on the toilet”; a marital argument that a man shoots himself in the foot to end; and a necrophiliac scene in “The Heaven of Mercury.”

“Heaven” spans 80 years in the life of Finus Bates, a newspaper editor, broadcaster and obituary writer, and of the small Mississippi town of Mercury.

“The language is racy and colloquial, delivered in a Southern telegraphese in which sentences tend to lose their subjects and verbs, rolling and swinging like the Mississippi accent,” Mary Flanagan wrote in a review in The Independent. “Shamelessly gorgeous prose becomes suddenly hymnlike, and there are modernist passages of fractured beauty.”

Watson taught at several schools, including Harvard and, most recently, the University of Wyoming, Laramie, where he was director of the creative writing program.

His second collection of stories, “Aliens in the Prime of Their Lives” (2010) — some of which he wrote while struggling with “Miss Jane” — was a finalist for the PEN/Faulkner Award for fiction.

In addition to his wife, whom he married in 2011, and his son Jason, Watson is survived by another son, Owen; his brother, Craig, and a granddaughter, Maggie, who suggested to her “Pappy” that he give the title character of “Miss Jane” a peacock.

And he did.

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