It is no wonder that Duff Brenna’s The Book of Mamie was lavished with rave reviews all over America when it appeared in 1990 – east to west, north to south, in virtually every major and many minor newspapers. It is no wonder that The Book of Mamie won the national Novel Award of the American Association of Writers & Writing Programs (AWP). And no wonder that its readers find it like a gateway to a new New World, vast and exciting.
The wonder is that it was allowed to go out of print after its second edition sold out and while people were still buying it. The wonder is that it remained out of print for fifteen years until the excellent small press Wordcraft of Oregon put it back into print in 2006 where it continues to be in print and available for a new generation of readers. Those readers are fortunate. For The Book of Mamie is, itself, a wonder.
Anyone who ever dreamed that Mark Twain might be reincarnated to tell us an American story of our times can have his wish fulfilled right here. Any American woman who ever snorted skepticism at Paul Bunyan, thinking, It’s the women who were the giants, who had the real muscle – well, Mamie is your girl. As her narrator, Christian Peter Foggy, puts it, “If Orphan Annie and Paul Bunyan had had a daughter, I figured something like Mamie would be the consequence. Mamie Bunyan… Tinkerbell with a gland problem…” Uberfraulein. First Saint of the Church of Mamie.
Or anyone who wishes old Steinbeck could have given us one more of his best or who has read through all of Dickens and yearned that he might come back as an American, or that a new American Dostoyevsky might appear with a heartlands, tall-tale sense of humor – here they are, ladies and gents, reborn in a guy who has lived the life.
Duff Brenna is American literature at its best, and all our best writers inform his heart and his talent, though he is quite himself as well. He could make a dyed-in-the-wool New York City boy like myself yearn for the midwest and swear it truly is the real heart of the heart of our country.
The Book of Mamie makes you remember what a great novel is, a wild exciting read, a book that opens your eyes with wonder, that every twenty pages or so makes you jump up and walk a circle on the rug just to cool down enough to keep going. This is not art about art or the vague posturings of a writer reaching for a lacey metaphor; this is a great big, awe-inspiring, wonder-inspired story about American people in the heartlands.
Here you’ll find characters who step off the page into your life – or grab you from your easy chair and drag you into theirs: the fire-breathing John Beaver who would scare the proverbials off a brass monkey; old Jacob Foggy, the malapropic half-wise patriarch with his foggy wisdom; Kritch’n Foggy desperate to understand so he can teach that understanding, pummeled by jealous brothers and face to face with a moral choice that sets him on a merry chase from hell; and of course, Mamie Beaver herself, a benevolent pagan goddess innocent, idiot savant, who fishes with her nipples for bait and crackles with electricity.
The paradise of the American wilderness is born again here – fruit and game, rivers and green shelters, wild onions, roots and berries, streams and lakes full of fish. Here is an original American picaresque road show, complete with giants and mad preachers, creaky out-back diner philosophers who hypnotize you with the truth and steal your money, crotchety railway men and sumo-sized ne’er do-well seekers of Art who weep at a drop of blood, rifle-mad killer farmers, hunter taxidermists crazy as Norman Bates, good country people and bad country people and all manner of people, farmers who practice a religion based on Shakespeare, a whole town of Mamieites worshipping Melville and Shakespeare in conflict with the Christers, Church of J.C. vs Church of Hoomanity, suffering Catholics who worship pain, broken-backed workers felled by Hurry Up Money, and an ageing hot mama who thinks everyone is trying to peek up her dress – not to mention a cow named Jewel who’ll steal your heart and a golden lab named Emma so real you long to scratch her ears and you’d swear you really saw her dance beneath the moon in a snowy field… There are book burnings, sex and violence, incest and murder, fear and joy and the thunder of God, and heroes more innocent than rogue pounding along on their feet of clay, a cast of characters who would make Dickens and Twain sit up and salute: John and Mamie Beaver, Kiss of Death Cody, Mongoose Jim, Charlie Friendly the barman, Phoebe Bumpus, two-tonned Don Shepard, Teddy Snowdy, Robbie Peevey, railroad Amoss, thick-necked Bob Thorn, Blind Venus the hoochy-coochy carnie girl, Anna and Soren Gulbrenson and their feisty little Pekingnese riding herd on them all, and all the Foggy’s – Jacob and his sons, Christian, Cash, Cush, Calvin, Calah and Cutham and their sister, Mary Magdalene…
Brenna knows the people and he knows the land, knows how it’s been used and abused, he knows the machines and the scams used to work it, knows the animals and the plants and trees and fields, knows about harvest and silage, harrowing and plantings, he knows how the color of paint on a farmhouse will respond to the change of seasons, and he knows what people do and have done, and he tells us everything he knows and has learned and shows us his America in a language uniquely American, beautiful as the summer sky over a wild wood lake, soddy as the earth, snowy as a deep-winter pine forest, tender as fresh alfalfa in a cow’s maw, exciting as a car chase on a country road…
Anyone who has read the great American writers – the ones with strong blood beating in their veins, Twain and Faulkner and Steinbeck, Melville and Whitman and London and Sinclair Lewis, all of them -- will hear their spirit humming again in these pages, fueling Brenna on. And those who have not read them will discover a glimpse of them in the spirit of this new great American writer, Duff Brenna.
Praise to David Memmott and his Wordcraft of Oregon press (http://www.wordcraftoforegon.org/) for putting this American classic back within the reach of people hungering for a great read.
But there’s lots more good news. The Book of Mamie was Duff Brenna’s first novel and there have been six more since – all world-class novels by a world-class author. The novels are, by order of appearance:
The Book of Mamie (Iowa, 1990; Wordcraft, 2006)
The Holy Book of the Beard (Nan A Talese/Doubleday, 1996)
Too Cool (Nan A. Talese/Doubleday, 1998; Penguin Plume, 1999)
The Altar of the Body (Picador, 2001)
Willow Man (Wynkin deWorde, 2005)
The Law of Falling Bodies (Hopewell, 2007)
Brenna’s work has been translated into several languages – including German, Danish, Japanese – and has received rave reviews from coast to coast in the US. Both The Book of Mamie and Too Cool have been on the verge of going into film production since they were published, and at present a sampler film is being made of Too Cool, as exciting a read as you can imagine – about a 16-year-old kid who steals a car with his 14 year old girlfriend and they get trapped in the snowy mountains of Colorado. Willow Man – which has only been published in Europe so far – is about the same kid, Triple E, only this time he is in Alaska being chased by a mad mountain man who looks a lot like the ornery John Beaver who disappeared near the end of The Book of Mamie.
These are great novels, world-class, books you will remember about characters you will never forget.
And for the last, I saved his most recent book, The Law of Falling Bodies, which the new small press Hopewell Publications (http://www.hopepubs.com/) had the good sense to grab for its 2007 list. This is a novel about youth and war and love and hate and cows and animals and farmers, too. And a farmer I know who happened to read this book said, “Hey, this Brenna guy? He had to have been a farmer himself. He knows the life.”
Brenna was a farmer himself. And an airborne soldier in the American assault on the Dominican Republic in 1965. And he did time in jail, too. And spent hours sitting up in the cabin of a tower-high crane, reading Shakespeare to get his BA, back in the ‘70s. Ultimately, he became an award winning professor of English literature, too…
I discovered Duff Brenna’s books here in Denmark just about ten years ago. One of his novels was translated into Danish, but of course I had to have the English original, and all it took was one book to hook me. This man is the real thing.
I could go on about this, but I’d rather make it brief. In brief, read Brenna. Read the books of Duff. You won’t regret it.
Greetings from this ancient capital!
Thomas E. Kennedy
PS: Look for the long interview I had the good fortune to do with Brenna and which will appear in the AWP’s Writers Chronicle in 2008. For those who want a little more, see Brenna’s website (http://www.duffbrenna.com/).
See also http://www.copenhagenquartet.com/ for information on four independent novels about the souls and seasons of Copenhagen, each written in a different style and set in a different season and which can be read independently of one another or together in any order desired: Kerrigan's Copenhagen, A Love Story, which is a novel disguised as a guide to the bars of Copenhagen, each chapter unfolding in a different serving house; Bluett's Blue Hours, a noir tale about the deep dark of Copenhagen winter and the seamier sides of life in this beautiful capital; Greene's Summer, about a Chilean torture survivor who comes to Copenhagen to be treated in a torture rehabilitation center and meets a Danish woman who has herself survived a violent marriage; and Danish Fall, a satire about 12 people connected to a Danish firm which is being downsized.