By his own admission, Earley's first novel, Jim the Boy, is meant to be a children's story for adults. Tonally, it resembles classic young adult fiction such as The Yearling and Little House on the Prairie. Written on an eighth-grade reading level and scrubbed clean of sex, violence, ribald language, irony and any dramatic tension, this sweet coming-of-age tale will not challenge the average adult's worldview or test the limits of his vocabulary. In assuming virtue in simplicity, continuity and sincerity of expression, it also situates itself outside the skepticism of postmodernism. As the first novel produced by a writer named one of "20 Writers for the 21st Century" in The New Yorker's recent "Future of American Fiction" issue, this book's implicit message will be heavily scrutinized, and perhaps construed as a sign of things to come.
"The boy" is Jim Glass Jr., who lives with his widowed mother in the Depression-era rural town of Aliceville, N.C. He is cared for, and coddled by, his three uncles--Zeno, Coran and Al. Jim is tall for his age, handsome, well-liked at school and a decent baseball player--a real boy's boy. As the book begins, he has just turned 10. This marks the beginning of important things for Jim, including an increased awareness of the emotional lives of others, and the dawning realization that there's a world outside his own backyard. The book sets up a series of growth experiences for him. During the course of one year he makes his first childhood friend, develops a rivalry with him, and almost loses him to illness. He becomes aware of girls, and in watching his mother being courted by a traveling salesman, he experiences, second-hand, adult loneliness.
Jim also confronts his own past, learning what it means to be placed in time. Since Jim's father died a week before his son was born, and his notoriously lawless grandfather lives in isolation in the mountains, his mother and uncles construct a substitute family history made in part of myths. But the boy's matter-of-fact appraisal of situations he encounters stands in marked contrast to the adults' need to romanticize. By presenting the novel's events through the eyes of a pragmatic 10-year-old boy, Earley makes a sly statement about nostalgia. Do adults inhabit a fantasy world that parallels the one in which children are presumed to live? It's an interesting question, but since the book supplies an excess of emotion at the expense of context, it participates in this mythologizing of the past rather than critiquing it.
My reading was briefly interrupted by an Alfred Hitchcock film retrospective on television, which provided an instructive contrast to Earley's sensibility. I put down the book just long enough to catch 1943's Shadow of a Doubt, a Thorton Wilder-penned film in which a young girl living in a quiet bucolic town invites her Uncle Charlie to come visit her family. As the story progresses, the girl is horrified to find that the charming uncle she's been idolizing, is, in fact, a serial killer on the lam. Into the gauzy innocence of small-town America the director symbolically inserts an opportunistic sociopath, shattering a little girl's faith in the superiority of adult mores. Said Hitchcock, in an interview aired along with the film: "The sheltered world where this little girl lived may have been her world, but it wasn't the world."
The world of Tony Earley's Jim Glass Jr. is not only his world, but in the context of this novel, it is also the world--it's all he knows and may be all he will ever know. Earley's story leaves little room for a shadow of a doubt--there are no doubts here, only verities, and all of them eternal. It might be true that Jim the Boy is meant for adults, as Earley claims--for the contemporary, infantilized American adult will find much to celebrate in its nostalgic vision. Jim the Boy reads like an attempt to coax the genie of modernity back into its bottle. The novel closes just as Aliceville is being electrified, Earley's signal that the curtain is coming down on a simpler way of life. But the greater world circumscribing Jim's insulated universe is experiencing war, economic depression, lynchings--and the class differences that allow the main characters in this novel to be above such vicissitudes.
Critic Walter Kirn has praised this book in the The New York Times for its plainness, its lack of complexity and ambition, and its conventionality. In an interview in the same issue, Tony Earley, who teaches at Vanderbilt University, confessed to pretending around his colleagues to be "reactionary and anti-postmodern and anti-theory and ... pretty ignorant." Kirn and Earley and I all live in the most defiantly anti-intellectual country in the Western world. Only one of us isn't bragging about it.