“The Incredible Winston Browne,” by Sean Dietrich

Sean Dietrich

Sean Dietrich

Reviewed by Claire Hamner Matturro

Sean Dietrich’s newest novel, The Incredible Winston Browne (Thomas Nelson 2021) reads as if it is a gift from Dietrich to his readers. It is singularly beautiful.

Rich with Dietrich’s trademark everyman eloquence and his profound insights into the human condition, Winston Browne tells the story of a dying man who achieves peace with his life, a run-away girl who finds a family, a wayward teen boy who discovers his place in the world, and a church-lady spinster who blossoms from prim to sassy and feels good about it. Set in a small panhandle Florida town, the book avoids sentimentality and is never trite, transcending those potential traps by the sheer magic of Dietrich’s words and his story-telling.

It’s not a plot spoiler to mention that Winston Browne is dying because the very first sentence in the book is “Winston Browne knew he was dying.” Winston is not an old man, but a long-time habit with Lucky Strike cigarettes has claimed him. The book does not shy away from the emotional aspects of the process, but it does ease through his physical decline with a gentler focus. Winston has been the sheriff of Moab, Florida—the small town where he grew up—since he returned there after serving in WWII, and he decides to spend his last days in the town doing what he’s always done for as long as he can.

Winston Browne, as the book’s name implies, is the main character, but he gets upstaged in many a chapter by his best friend since childhood, Jimmy, and Jimmy’s long-time fiancée Eleanor. She had been Jimmy’s “steady girl” since they were teenagers and he proposed when they were twenty-three but never set a date. Now at fifty-two, Eleanor recognizes that Jimmy “wasn’t interested in becoming much more than her glorified buddy.”

When Jimmy forgets to take Eleanor to a church social, Winston—who has just learned he is dying—steps in to escort her. He and Eleanor dance. And dance. And spark something between them that triggers Eleanor’s metamorphosis. Theirs becomes an unusual love story, tender and genuine yet without much physical passion except a kiss here and there. It turns even more poignant as she becomes one of Winston’s primary caregivers. But Winston and Eleanor’s closeness also sparks discord between Winston and his best friend since Jimmy sees the whole thing as Winston stealing his girl.

The town, Moab, no doubt is based upon the small Florida city where Dietrich lives:

Moab was located off U.S. Route 29, sitting on the grayish-brown water of the Escambia River, which ran downward through south Alabama, cutting into West Florida before spilling into the Gulf of Mexico. The town was covered in the last of summer’s greenery, golden rod, and purple asters. All storefronts, with their proud little awnings, tried to be so much more than there were.

Set in 1955, in some ways Moab seems like a little Mayberry town with Winston in the iconic Andy Griffith role of sheriff. The town is portrayed as largely clean and wholesome, its citizens fine people, and even the town drunk is a good fellow, well-liked and tolerated. The worst the town folks are guilty of is gossip, which they do in plenitude, and the one time that Winston becomes enraged, it is due to hurtful gossip.

Winston, like Sheriff Andy Taylor, is a good-hearted, wise, level-headed, and benevolent person who lives up to the “protect and serve” motto of law enforcement. He is more social worker than law enforcement, coaching the local baseball team, delivering food to the poor and shut-ins, guiding a would-be delinquent into a good job, and teaching an awkward teenager how to dance. In a moment of danger, he feels like an imposter in wearing his guns, something he admits he has not done in two years. And if Winston seems a bit like Sheriff Taylor, his deputy Tommy has a couple of borderline Barney Fife moments.

When evil comes, it does not come from within the town but from outside the community. Members of a cult arrive to re-capture a child that escaped its clutches. The girl, Jesse, is strong, spunky, and a tomboy. She will not be recaptured easily. She arrives in the town on the run with a stray cat in tow. She steps down from a truck whose rider has given her a lift without molesting her in any way. When Jimmy confronts the runaway, she clocks him good on the head with a can of carrots. However, before long she is essentially adopted by Moab in general and Winston and Eleanor specifically—even as the sheriff looks for info on any runaways from nearby communities.

The cult’s attempts to kidnap Jesse and kill her creates suspense and tension—and action, giving Deputy Tommy his moment of glory. But the tenderness with which Eleanor takes to the child and fills both a mother and grandmother role is the far more affecting story line.

Winston is ever the wise chronicler, and his reflections grace the narrative with many an apt insight. In one scene where the sheriff and some of the Little Leaguers are delivering groceries to a former teacher with dementia, Winston observes how “the boys were so carefree.” Boyhood, he reflects, “carried such a lightness with it. Children … were much wiser than adults in many ways. Life was happening right now, right in this moment. There was no tomorrow, and yesterday was a photograph. And that was the essence of boyhood.”

Another youth in the story, Buzz, becomes a kind of son to Winston. Buzz is a school dropout who lives in poverty with his crippled mother and functions at the edge of delinquency. After Buzz is arrested, Winston takes him on to redeem and guide, having recognized he is a good kid in a bad situation.

Buzz’s character arc—like Eleanor’s—is profound. But it does not come easy:

Buzz had never felt as much like a child as he did right now. A baby wearing man’s clothing. A kid without a father tries so hard to be a man before his body agrees with his efforts. By the time puberty was finished, Buzz would be eighty inside. That’s how it worked. But right now he felt so young. He wanted someone to squeeze him and tell him it was only a bad dream.

Buzz, Jesse, Winton and Jimmy are united in their fanatism about baseball. The town mostly cheers the Brooklyn Dodgers and everybody’s favorite is Jackie Robinson. The 1955 World Series is highlighted in the story, and the team and Robinson will have a personal part to play in the plot before the Incredible Winston Browne is over.

Dietrick, whose unabashed love for dogs is apparent to the multitude of fans of his “Sean of the South” blog, offers a red hound named Huck as a kind of motif for adaptability and transcendence. Huck appears at first as the town drunk’s unnamed dog but when he decides he is Winston’s dog, the sheriff names him Huck after Huckleberry Finn.

The Incredible Winston Browne is a wonderful book, a tale of such gentleness and love that it cannot help but be uplifting even in the face of loss and death. The writing is consistently crisp with the occasional splash of dry wit and hints of poetry, and the plotting is a fresh return to the warmth of stories like those our grandparents might have told us on the porches on a summer night.

Dietrick is the author of twelve other books, including Stars of Alabama, reviewed by Southern Literary Review at “Stars of Alabama,” by Sean Dietrich – Southern Literary Review (southernlitreview.com), and a recent memoir, Will the Circle be Unbroken. He is also a columnist and podcast host known for his commentary on life in the American South. His work has appeared in national and regional publications, and he is the creator of the Sean of the South Podcast.

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  1. Denise Clark says

    This is a perfect review of this beautiful story! Sean Dietrich has easily become my favorite contemporary writer, and I eagerly await his next stories!

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