There's no way to review Tony Earley's new novel without dealing with the phenomenon of "Southern fiction," a label that often serves to belie the region's diversity and depth. The best writers who've been placed in the Southern fiction pigeonhole use the region as their setting while exploring more universal themes -- think of Doris Betts, Ernest J. Gaines, Lee Smith, or the late Larry Brown, among others. They generally portray Southerners as three-dimensional, exuberant, steadfast in the face of life's difficulties, and, importantly, able to hold more than one idea in their heads at once. Then there's the collection of writers who comprise what I call the "Granny rocking on the porch" school of literature -- purveyors of sweet, quirky regionalism such as Jan Karon, Billie Letts or Fannie Flagg -- whose books should come with blood sugar testing kits.
Tony Earley, to me, falls somewhere in between those two extremes. He's a finely detailed craftsman and an insightful writer who, nonetheless, too often offers a view of the South's past that slops over into sentimentality.
Charlotteans first noticed Earley in 1993, when his short story "Charlotte" was published in the Best American Short Stories collection. Never mind what it says about the city's gnawing need to be noticed that few people seemed to grasp how much the story drew attention to Charlotte's fondness for the low-rent tackiness of pro wrestling. And ever since Earley's 1985 book Here We Are In Paradise was reprinted in 1997, he has become a favorite author for many fans of, here's that label again, "Southern fiction."
In 2001, Earley published Jim the Boy, expanding on the Jim Glass character from three of his short stories. That novel was built around the experiences of Jim, a 10-year-old growing up in the Depression-era North Carolina hill country town of Aliceville. Jim the Boy was at times beautifully simple, flat as a pancake, and unintentionally sappy. An astute inner portrait of Jim's growing awareness of the adult outside world, the novel notably suffered from the glaring absence of anyone with serious money woes. In 1934, in North Carolina, economic pain was practically the air that citizens breathed. The problem with the novel was that lyricism, which Earley has in spades, will only take a "reality-based" author so far. If the story isn't grounded in a portrayal of its era's socioeconomic truth, it's merely a fantasy -- which, of course, is what the Granny rocker writers churn out.
Earley must have heard similar criticisms of Jim the Boy because in The Blue Star, its sequel, the now-teenaged Jim is awash in current events, notably World War II. Jim's a high school senior and he's in love with Chrissie Steppe, a girl who supposedly "belongs" to a local bigshot landowner's son now fighting in the Pacific. Growing pains and an awakening sexuality (awakening at 18? Where's this kid been?) make The Blue Star marginally more realistic than Jim. The potential is there, in fact, for a portrait of a young man, and a region, going through major changes, but Earley's self-consciously polished prose gets in the way. His storytelling is adept, but too often, his pristine style keeps the reader at a distance from the story's emotional core. That's a pretty big disadvantage when your story is a very simple one that needs readers to be able to buy into it.
Here's what I'm talking about in regards to Earley's style. Someone is hoeing in a cotton field and has to go around a grave: "... it was a spot that by its nature forced me to end one thing, and momentarily step out of my way and consider, and then start something fresh on the other side; it made room inside those four rows of cotton, and the working days that held them, for a small, necessary type of hope." My question is, who the hell talks like that? The answer is: plenty of people in Earley's 1934 North Carolina hill country. The prose is too "just so," as are Jim Glass' kin; and the picture it produces of a calm, stolid, homogenous region is sappier than North Carolina pines.
There's a lot to like about Earley's fiction: He has a knack for crystalline descriptions, he has compassion for his characters, albeit at a distance, and he treats white Southerners of an earlier era as something other than hillbillies. In those ways, he's right up there with some of the region's finest authors. But his view of Jim and company, no matter how simply and directly they're described, is an essentially romanticized one, which, sad to say, places Earley in the company of regional hacks.