A Thousand Miles from Nowhere
By John Gregory Brown
Lee Boudreaux Books.
288 pp. $26.

Reviewed by Michael Magras

Hurricane Katrina ruined thousands of lives in 2005, but Henry Garrett, 41, a New Orleans native and former high school English teacher, "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 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.

Henry winds up at a Lynchburg, Va., motel. Its proprietor is an Indian woman named Latangi, a lonely widow who, unlike Henry, knows New Orleans is under water and tells him he can stay with her as long as he wishes.

Much of the first third of the book consists of flashbacks from Henry's past, including the time when 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.

He decides to try to reconcile with his estranged wife, Amy, a celebrated cookbook author who now lives near Lynchburg. 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 The first is relatively benign: Latangi asks him to read an unexpectedly brilliant unpublished poem by her deceased husband, Mohit.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 strikes and 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 tension. The novel is much more compelling when Brown sticks with present-day action. He has created memorable characters, the best of whom is Marge Brockman, kindhearted 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.

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.

Michael Magras is a member of the National Book Critics Circle.