PERSONAL: Born in Meridian, MS. Education: Mississippi State University, B.A., 1978; University of Alabama, M.F.A., 1985.
ADDRESSES: Home—Pensacola, FL. Office—University of West Florida, 11000 University Parkway, Pensacola, FL 32514.
CAREER: Writer. Worked as a newspaper reporter in Alabama and Florida; University of Alabama, public relations department and lecturer; Harvard University, Cambridge, MA, Briggs-Copeland writer-in-residence and director of creative writing program; University of West Florida, Pensacola, teacher.
AWARDS, HONORS: Sue Kaufman Prize, American Academy of Arts and Letters, for Last Days of the Dog-Men.
Last Days of the Dog-Men (stories), W. W. Norton (New York, NY), 1996.
The Heaven of Mercury (novel), W. W. Norton (New York, NY), 2002.
Contributor to anthologies, including Dog Stories, University of Colorado Press (Boulder, CO), 1993, and Walking on Water and Other Stories, edited by Alan Wier, University of Alabama Press (Tuscaloosa, AL), 1996, and to literary journals, including Black Warrior Review, Story, and Greensboro Review.
SIDELIGHTS: While Brad Watson worked as a reporter for Gulf Coast newspapers, he spent his free time polishing his fiction, which included many short stories. Many of these are about dogs, inspired by an anecdote he heard while at a party. Apparently a woman had her lover's dog euthanized when she learned he was cheating on her. This was the first dog story Watson tucked away and one that he later adopted and expanded. Watson hadn't been published in any of the popular literary journals, but he persisted in sending out his work. He had sent many submissions to Story, before his "Seeing Eye" clicked. After it appeared in the journal, Watson was approached to publish his dog stories as a collection. In the year the award-winning Last Days of the Dog-Men, was published, he moved to Massachusetts to teach at Harvard University, a position that lasted several years before Watson returned to the South to teach at the University of West Florida.
In these stories, dogs are intrinsically connected to the lives of people. "Such a high concept sounds like the premise for comedy," wrote Gregory Feeley in Washington Post Book World, "and indeed several of Watson's stories are either droll or hilarious." All of these contemporary stories are set in the South, and the central theme is the failed relationships between men and women.
In a review for BookPage online, Alex Richardson called them "stories of human regret and sadness, of loss and lunacy, which a dog's presence somehow underscores."
In the title story, the narrator is a man who has always lived with dogs, and when his marriage and life in suburbia fail, he moves into a dilapidated farmhouse that he shares with other men and dogs. "Every detail is meaningful," wrote Irvin Malin in Studies in Short Fiction. "The narrator is displaced, separated from Lois; the other men who live in the same house are 'unbalanced,' 'off-center.' They are a 'little tilted'—unlike the dogs who don't have to worry about the significance of things." Malin called the collection "remarkable" and said it "heralds a brilliant career."
Infidelity is a frequent theme, as are cruelty and despair. "Actually, everyone in Mr. Watson's territory has a secret life," commented Tom De Haven in the New York Times Book Review. "Except of course, for the retrievers, mutts, collies, and bulldogs that never stray far from their mixed-up human companions."
Three of the eight stories are told from a woman's point of view, and two are about elderly women. In "Bill," eighty-seven-year-old Wilhelmina's husband is in a nursing home, and her even-more-frail poodle must be put down. Before she takes the dog on the final trip to the vet, she prepares him a sumptuous meal and serves it on her best china. De Haven called this "a terrific love story....Written in crisp, rhythmic prose, Mr. Watson's work manages to avoid the showboating and fey self-esteem that infect so much contemporary short fiction. His men, women, and dogs—those wonderful dogs!—are superbly imagined. And in each and every story they come alive with honest, thrumming energy."
New York Times Book Review contributor Emily Hall called Watson's debut novel, The Heaven of Mercury, "Southern Gothic down to its core, with all the requisite grotesquerie, including corpse-reviving necrophilia and families bound by hate and spite as much as they are by blood." The story is set in Mercury, Mississippi and spans most of a century, reflected on by narrator Finus Bates, over eighty and still editor of the town newspaper, and who also greets the day on the local radio station. Finus writes eloquent obituaries, and with each, he contemplates his connection with the diminishing number of Mercury's older residents. In writing his wife's, he notes that Avis's life had been a trial. And it had, because Finus had been in love with her best friend since 1916, when he saw Birdie doing a cartwheel nude at the swimming hole. He never pursued her though, and Birdie married Earl Urquhart, a violent man who was perpetually unfaithful to her, and who is the son of the repugnant funeral director. Finus never got over it, even though he and Avis eventually had a son, and on her deathbed, she told him that he had ruined her life. Other characters include Creasie, Birdie's housemaid, and Aunt Vish, a former slave and healer who a Kirkus Reviews contributor felt "Faulkner might have created," and who noted that "the real strength of the novel lies in its flexible structure, which allows us to overhear details of Mercury's overheated history as pieced together by several involved observers."
Scott Morris wrote in National Review that "what saves Finus and the others in the story may be described as the long view—the fact that most people amount to more in this life, for better and for worse, than they suppose; and furthermore, that death is a transition and not a terminus. The Heaven of Mercury cannot be understood without coming to terms with these ideas; they are much more than a backdrop, they are shimmering and omnipresent. And the artfulness with which Watson has spiritually supercharged the air his characters breathe is the primary reason this novel is exceptional."
As Finus nears the end of his life, he takes a trip down the Mississippi coast, where lying in the sand he is thrilled to see Monarch butterflies, newly arrived from South America. Watson writes that "they seemed to shiver under his rapt attention. He felt such an outpouring of love for them, he thought he could weep. They seemed hardly able to contain their delight that he was gazing upon their beautiful wings."
Morris commented that "a sinner like Finus knows that there is but one response to such a vision: gratitude. Readers will be thankful as well."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Boston Globe, November 17, 2002, Liza Weisstuch, review of The Heaven of Mercury, p. D8.
Kirkus Reviews, May 15, 2002, review of The Heaven of Mercury, p. 699.
Los Angeles Times Book Review, August 18, 2002, Mark Rozzo, review of The Heaven of Mercury, p. R14.
Mobile Register, October 20, 2002, review of The Heaven of Mercury.
National Review, February 24, 2003, Scott Morris, review of The Heaven of Mercury, p. 54.
New York Times, August 27, 2002, Richard Eder, review of The Heaven of Mercury, p. B7.
New York Times Book Review, June 9, 1996, Tom De Haven, review of Last Days of the Dog-Men, p. 13; November 10, 2002, Emily Hall, review of The Heaven of Mercury, p. 20.
Publishers Weekly, February 26, 1996, review of Last Days of the Dog-Men, p. 82; May 20, 2002, review of The Heaven of Mercury, p. 44.
Southern Humanities Review, winter, 1998, Charles Rose, review of Last Days of the Dog-Men, p. 98.
Studies in Short Fiction, winter, 1998, Irving Malin, review of Last Days of the Dog-Men, p. 98.
Times Literary Supplement, April 18, 1997, Scott Bradfield, review of Last Days of the Dog-Men, p. 21.
Washington Post Book World, July 28, 1996, Gregory Feeley, review of Last Days of the Dog-Men, p. 9.
BookPage,http://www.bookpage.com/ (December 12, 2002), Alex Richardson, review of Last Days of the Dog-Men.
Charlotte Observer Online,http://www.bayarea.com/ September 6, 2002, Polly Paddock, review of The Heaven of Mercury.
Identity Theory,http://www.identitytheory.com/ (July 21, 2002), Robert Birnbaum, interview with Watson.
Southern Scribe,http://www.southernscribe.com/ (December 12, 2002), Wayne Greehaw, review of The Heaven of Mercury.*