JoeyPinkney.com Book Review
The Magnificient Life of Gravvy Brown
by Devaughn Lilly
5 of 5 Stars
The Magnificent Life of Gravvy Brown by Devaughn Lilly is non stop action in a historical context. Born just before the Roaring 20s, Gravvy Brown went on the be the youngest person in Louisiana history to be executed for murder and the first person to be executed by the electric chair – just three days before his twenty-first birthday.
Who did he kill? His mother. Or so the police say…
The Magnificent Life of Gravvy Brown is a well-researched, well-executed piece of historical fiction that is endearing and enchanting. Devaughn Lilly did extensive groundwork to provide a snapshot of American history from the eyes of a proud, pampered, educated and well-travelled young black man growing up in various parts of the country during the 1920s and 1930s.
Set as a frame story, The Magnificent Life of Gravvy Brown is Gravvy Brown’s conveyance of three generations of his family’s history to a reporter looking to get his big break the day before Gravvy’s execution. Gravvy’s voice during the book is easy, reflective and enthralling. DeVaughn Lilly did a tremendous job letting Gravvy paint the most vivid picture of the life and times of himself and his mother and even his grandmother and how they are all intertwined through struggle, drugs and racism. I was so immersed in the Gravvy’s narrative that I forgot that I was reading a story within a story. The other thing that jogged my memory was the reporter David Wolfe occasionally asking a question or making a comment to the imprisoned Gravvy.
Gravvy Brown plays the role of the perfect narrator, effortlessly guiding the reader through a brief rundown of his grandmother’s life and the elaborate tale of his mother’s coming of age story. He speaks in simple terms. Every other sentence includes a “mamma said” or a “mamma did”. You really feel like you are listening to Gravvy relay his mother’s experience of running away from an orphanage after being raped and going on to become the main draw at the bustling brothel in New Orleans. You experience, through Gravvy’s tales, the anxiety caused by the impending Prohibition against alcohol and the euphoric relief of the end of World War I. You’ll get frustrated when Gravvy is asked to take breaks because his life and the world surrounding it is just that interesting.
Gravvy’s mother Anna is a broken soul that does not have an ounce of quit in her body. She goes by her middle name “Rose” as she strives to be the greatest movie star America has ever known. Her rise to eventual glory and fame is paralleled by drug addiction, promiscuity and criminal activity. The reader will watch Anna’s personal decline as the world-famous Rose Brown coincides with the increasing love and concern that Gravvy has for his mother’s well-being.
The razzle and dazzle of life on the stage fizzles in comparison to the complete person Gravvy knows as his mother. Below the glitz and glamor is a gun-toting, heroin-addicted, car-stealing, picture-painting former prostitute. Gravvy and his adopted brother Bosley gets to see the real Anna as she takes them with her from New Orleans to New York City to Hollywood on her journey to stardom. His childhood is bittersweet. On one hand, Anna provides Gravvy and Bosley with any and everything they wants from quality time to a high-quality lifestyle. Yet, watching the drug binges and the effects that deaths in the family has on Anna is heart-breaking.
Each time I picked up the book, I felt like I was a part of the journey, seeing the world through Gravvy’s eyes. The version of the book I read had 344 pages. I chuckled to myself when Gravvy was born just before the 200 page mark because I felt like we had gone through a lifetime of experiences with Gravvy by then. His inclusion in the actual story had yet to begin. Reading The Magnificent Life of Gravvy Brown felt like sitting around that one family member that knows everything about everybody. Gravvy makes it is easy to get caught up in this novel.
DeVaughn Lilly is the consummate historian, seamlessly infusing global, national and local news within Gravvy Brown’s narrative of the first half of the 1900s. World War I, the Prohibition Era, Marcus Garvey’s Black Nationalist Movement, Hollywood, shifts in the presidency, hurricanes, woman’s suffrage, etc. All these things are seen through the eyes of Black folks trying to survive an overtly racist, yet beautiful American landscape. Lilly use history to add relevance to The Magnificent Life of Gravvy Brown. Those historical facts many times take a backseat many times to the great adventures Gravvy Brown shares.
This is simply a great American novel. In terms of rating the book, the tale told by Devaughn Lilly through Gravvy Brown superseded any other aspect that I could rate this book on. I was so caught up in the highs and lows of the plot that the editing errors were inconsequential to my enjoyment of the allure of relevant historical artifacts, perfect pacing and interesting plot twists. The Magnificent Life of Gravvy Brown is one to grow on. Five stars all the way.
Click here to read the JoeyPinkney.com interview with Devaughn Lilly.