Nic Brown’s Floodmarkers is set in 1989, but in its fractured portrait of small-town American life, it feels considerably older—a Winesburg, Ohio run through with Gen-X slang. Like Sherwood Anderson, Brown is essentially a still-life artist; he eschews plot for portraiture, the linear for the lateral. “His instinct was to present everything together, as in a dream,” Malcolm Cowley once wrote of Anderson. So, too, with Brown, whose first novel scatters brilliantly in a dozen directions at once, without advancing a single day.
Floodmarkers is set in Lystra, a fictional North Carolina burg caught in the path of a very real natural disaster. As the narrative begins, at four in the morning on September 21, Hurricane Hugo, a swirling Category 5 monster, has barreled up the coast from the tropics and seems poised to peter out somewhere over the town. “Inland North Carolina always got weather like this, unraveling hurricanes dropping huge amounts of rain as they blew in across the Piedmont,” Brown writes of the storm’s first tendrils.
Still, when Hugo does finally graze Lystra, it arrives with enough ballast to break open an upriver dam, sending a torrent of water through center of the town. In the book’s loveliest passage, Fletcher, a teenager suffering from terminal cancer, dashes out of her house and dives headlong into the pond that now ripples above the local park: “She dropped deeper and floated just above the footpath, like a ghost visiting the landmarks of her life, then drifted over the grass and past a small bed of ferns swaying in the water. She felt endangered and rash, flush with the risk of life.”
This watery metamorphosis—a “daily view rendered suddenly exotic”—serves as the novel’s backdrop and is utilized by Brown as a dramatic device. Over four sections, each divided into short chapters, the story flits from one end of Lystra to the other, charting the damage, both physical and psychic, that Hugo has left behind. Rarely does Brown return to the same scene; instead, he creates a sense of perspective by interweaving a series of vignettes.
Evelyn Graham, an embittered spinster, pushes her cart through the town’s grocery store, eavesdropping on conversations in adjacent aisles. Dr. Pat Doublehead, a Cherokee veterinarian, evacuates a Noah’s ark of animals—lizards, cats, dogs, and horses—from his office. Bryce labors amid puddles of water and animal fat on the floor of Libertee Meats, while dreaming of a future as a movie star. Fifteen-year-old Grier struggles to care for her best friend, Fletcher, while entangling herself in an affair with Fletcher’s older brother. The elderly Cotton, a former NASCAR crew chief, attempts to rescue keepsakes from his basement; after fracturing his hip in the process, he is saved by his callous grandson. Isaac, a school-bus driver, herds two children safely back to their parents, before worriedly returning to his very pregnant girlfriend. And so on.
Brown, who toured for years with rock bands as a drummer, has a good feel for language’s musicality. He can make the prose sing but rarely allows himself the indulgence. Most of the writing here is sharp, terse, and fast—which is not to say that Floodmarkers is flat. It’s probably best understood as a kind of fugue, comprised of dozens of deftly drawn character studies that splinter, intertwine, and swirl up into one grand melody.
Matthew Shaer is a staff writer at the Christian Science Monitor.