Jim the Boy: Close your eyes and step aboard as it passes

The air is warm and thick, a coat you couldn't take off. (55-6)

I finished Tony Earley's acclaimed first novel on the screened porch of my in-everything-but-laws' house in the eighty degree darkness of a Raleigh summer night.  As I read, bare feet kicked up on the wicker arm of the loveseat, a massive chorus of crickets pressed in on me, layers deep.  It was the very quintessence of summer, of indolence, and of the narrow, humid privacy of reading.

And of course, of the long North Carolinian evening.  Earley is a Tar Heel bred, and he cleaves closely to the landscapes of his upbringing.

The town squatted quietly in the sun as if tied to the ground by the web of crisscrossing power lines stretched between the houses. (25)

This is a small town world, a collection of loosely bound lives, drawn delicately toward and away from each other and their home.  The one great journey of the novel is to the South Carolinian coast, and it is filled with a mix of wonder and the urgent desire to be home.  Thomas Wolfe's themes, if not his elaborate prose, loom large.  Everyone drags the past, their home, and their knowledge of the necessities of the future behind them through the smallest daily tasks.

Near the road, a small herd of cows pulled their shadows through a pasture. (224)

Jim the Boy is a slow and careful bildungsroman of Southern childhood, destined to take its place on a thousand high school summer reading lists.  But to describe it in those terms (the coming of age tale, "slow" and "careful," fodder for required reading) belies the effortless grace of the prose, the joys of image that there are to be found on every page, and the vitality of the plot, which builds up complex drama from the simple microcosms that a child observes every day of his life.

 Uncle Al was in the middle of a story whose beginning Jim already knew; Jim closed his eyes and stepped aboard as it passed. (57)

Jim's father died before he was born, victim of a hereditarily weak heart.  He was dramatically alienated from his monstrous father - a patriarch who lives up the mountain from Jim's town.  Jim's mother has refused any contact with her father-in-law, and the boy is raised by her and her collection of brothers, all of whom seem torn between sheltering their nephew and nudging him into independence.  They are suspended between affection and the ethical tug of their responsibility to him - tethered, buoyantly, like the town itself.

Earley was a short story writer first, and, like some of Alice Munro's collections of small town tales and bildungsromane, this work book between the genres of the novel and the short story cycle.  It has that quality that I so often cite as the feature of really brilliant short story form - it is an art of subtlety, rather than boldness, so it leaves you with the cumulative sense of its brilliance, but without a clear sense of how the brilliant effect was achieved. I mentioned before how much I admire the way that Earley depicts the perfect lyricism of childlike contemplation and its free-wheeling, associative thinking:

[...] other questions began pulling into his head like trains into a station.  Only none of the questions had words, only empty places, followed by empty places where answers should have been.  They rushed past him like pieces of fog, things he could see but not grab. (98)

This effect does something extraordinary to the simile, revitalizing it by recalling a time in which I (at least) got lost in contemplation of a detail, and then swung away from it, moving from thought to thought like they were monkey-bars built on a structure of likeness:

The boy cannot hit the baseball to his satisfaction.  Though he makes contact almost every time he swings the bat, he does not strike the mighty blow he sees in his mind.  The ball does not leap scalded into the sky, but hops into the tall grass as if startled by a noise; it buzzes mildly, a dying beetle tied to a piece of thread, and rolls to a disappointing stop. (45)

Obviously I heartily recommend Jim the Boy to you: I have already given it to D, who (contrary to my stern instructions) didn't get a chance to read it while he was still in Raleigh, and so has brought it to Waikiki with us.  I am curious to see how this environment changes the texture of the reading.

But as a last note, I want to say a bit more about that formative journey that Jim takes with his Uncle Al. If I remember correctly, upon setting out, all his uncles will tell him is that they need to see a man about a dog.  There's never a dog, Jim thinks, a bit grumpily.  In fact, they head south in the hopes of buying some horses from a man near the South Carolina border.  For reasons I won't go into, there are no horses for them when they arrive, and Jim is left with the nearly universal North Carolinian feeling that he is glad he doesn't live amidst his neighbors to the south.  In the face of this disappointment, his Uncle Al has a sudden outbreak of impracticality: they will go to the ocean, which neither has ever seen.  How could I help but think of this stunning passage when I am surrounded by Pacific in every direction?

Eventually they drove out of the swamps and plantations and entered a desolate barren in which there was nothing at all to see except pine trees.  When they crossed finally out of the pines, they discovered the wide sea.  Jim's breath caught up in his throat like it was afraid to come out.  He tried to breathe several times, but drew no air.  He wished that just for a moment, until he grew used to the sight, the ocrean would simply hold still.  But the waves lined up and bore down on the wide, white beach like a gang of boys intent on jumping a gully.  Each wave rose and took a running go and rushed toward South Carolina and cast itself down on the sand.  And each wave when it crashed and broke sounded to Jim like the angry breath of God. (66)

This passage is something of a miracle: it recreates a state of innocence that we all must think is lost to us.  (How, I often wonder, do you retrieve the almost religious sense of awe that came with your first sight of snow, or your first experience of flight?)

I got my copy of Jim the Boy through BookMooch, and it makes me want to mount a spirited defense of the joys of reading a used copy, and the aesthetic richness (where many, I know, see bibliophile depravity) of writing in books.  Just after this passage, you see, I found this marginal note from a previous reader:

if only i could feel again 
what it felt like 
to touch the ocean 
for the first time....

And just like that, I knew not only Jim's sense of displaced wonder when confronted by the sublime instability of the ocean's vastness, but the nostalgic loss of my predecessor, and in fact my own.

Jim the Boy
Tony Earley

(Normally I don't plug like this, but if you click through on the links above to Amazon, you will see that Jim the Boy is on serious sale there for $5.18, at the time of writing.)

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