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Friday, March 28, 2008

Tony Earley Signing Tonight

"The hero of both novels is Jim Glass, born in rural North Carolina in 1924, only days after the death of his young father of a sudden heart attack in a cotton field. Jim is raised by his mother and her three bachelor brothers, Zeno, Al and Coran, in the tiny North Carolina town of Aliceville. Despite the Depression, the McBrides live well — they’re successful farmers, cotton gin operators and storekeepers. “Jim the Boy” is a story of a precocious 10-year-old amid abounding family love. Life is not completely sweet for Jim — how could it be for any boy without a father? — but his world is a mostly secure and gentle one.

"'The Blue Star' reacquaints us with Jim at 17. He is the same good boy he was at 10; he’s caring, thoughtful, a pleasant well-intended companion at every moment. But Jim’s life cannot possibly be as simple as it once was, and he confronts not only the eternal turmoil of love, but venality and the frightening calls of duty and war. Jim has fallen at first sight for Chrissie Steppe, the daughter of an Indian and a white mother, Nancy, who by not entirely becoming coincidence was Uncle Zeno’s one love. Nancy threw Zeno over because he would not enlist in World War I, and the echoes of that failed romance rumble through Jim and Chrissie’s faltering relationship. Chrissie is not free to return Jim’s interest because she is the girlfriend of Bucky Bucklaw, who enlisted in the Navy before Pearl Harbor.

"Jim struggles to retain his loyalty to his widowed mother and his generous uncles while becoming fully himself. His best buddy, Dennis Deane, who provides much of the book’s perfectly measured comic relief, is the kind of knuckleheaded, sex-addled goof inevitably attractive to someone like Jim, who feels required to remain on the straight and narrow. Jim pines for Chrissie while rejecting his mother’s choice for him, beautiful, serious Norma Harris. “Some girls were just too religious” is Jim’s conclusion about Norma. Chrissie offers an introduction to the darker side that awaits Jim beyond the protective McBride enclave. “You get bad feelings about a lot of things,” Jim tells her while driving her home from school one day. “There’s a lot in the world to feel bad about,” she answers. “I guess I never thought that way,” Jim says; “I think there’s a lot in the world to feel good about.” But Chrissie makes her point.

"In an interview eight years ago, Earley described “Jim the Boy” as “a children’s book for adults,” and “The Blue Star” has a similar feel. It’s such a deceptively simple strategy — to take the unembellished storytelling style of children’s literature and to bend it to adult themes — that many novelists will feel like smacking themselves on the side of the head for not having thought of it themselves. But it is no easy feat, especially to stay inside the hazard lines of sentimentality. We protect children from what we feel they cannot fully cope with or understand, and the risks of writing a children’s book for grown-ups are that it may tell us that life and humans are better than we know to be the case or that we may succumb to the comfort offered by familiar material.

"This time around, Earley does not always toe-dance down these chalk lines with the same grace he showed in “Jim the Boy.” The story of a child raised by bachelor uncles in rural North Carolina during the Depression is far fresher than that of a high-schooler in love with a dangerous girl as war thunders in the distance. And the fact that Chrissie’s mom is Uncle Zeno’s former love adds unnecessary melodramatic clinking to the story. At moments, “The Blue Star” feels a bit too close to Andy Hardy.

"Yet I galloped through the novel and relished every page. The book succeeds for two reasons. First, Earley knows Jim and his world with a sureness and an intimacy that always mark the most involving fiction; he understands even the uglier things that Jim is so slow to recognize, like the class rivalries between the more prosperous townspeople and the “lintheads” who work in the mills. Earley’s tenacious grip on his material is not surprising, since he has been working on these books for much of the last 15 years. Both “Jim the Boy” and “The Blue Star” are descended from the last three stories in Earley’s 1994 collection, “Here We Are in Paradise.” Those stories were each narrated by Jim and projected his entire life. (Any reader too anxious to wait can find out what becomes of Jim and Chrissie by looking backward to Earley’s first book.) Unlike the stories, however, both novels are told in the third person, and they’d make interesting studies for a creative writing class, to see how authorial distance can deepen a tale. Jim in his own words was less interesting than he is when described by an author whose simple rhetoric conveys a knowledge of his character that is absolutely complete.

"Earley’s simple prose is always informed by Jim’s good heart. Jim, the McBrides and Aliceville so thoroughly fulfill our era’s longings for the news of good lives lived by faith in one another that “The Blue Star,” like its hero, is irresistible. If there is a third installment, I will be in line at the bookstore when they open up the boxes."

Scott Turow is at work on a sequel to “Presumed Innocent.”