Reviewed by Ron Charles
Washington Post Book World
In 2000, Tony Earley published a delicate, daringly uneventful novel called Jim the Boy. His short stories in Harper's and the New Yorker had already attracted enthusiastic praise, but this first novel about a sensitive 10-year-old in a small North Carolina town inspired ferocious devotion. I thought it was one of the best books of the year; I tried to read chapters to my family but kept getting too choked up. Newspapers ran adulatory author profiles of the modest Vanderbilt professor, and there was talk about the advent of a new classic.
At the time, I remember consulting with several reviewers around the country about how to categorize Jim the Boy. The problem concerned us because we cared so much. Was it a YA book? The juvenile jacket cover -- retained, unfortunately, for this sequel -- seemed aimed at middle-schoolers, but we worried about scaring off adult readers with that label, and we suspected it was too slow for teens anyhow (no rape, school shooting or bone cancer -- the unholy trinity of YA lit).
We've waited a long time for a sequel to that story, and during those eight years, Jim the boy has grown into Jim the young man, the sort of person you'd expect from the first novel. He's decent and contemplative, concerned about others' feelings and his own shortcomings, suspended awkwardly between adolescence and adulthood.
The key to Jim is that he's an ordinary teenager who's endowed with an extraordinary consciousness of the ineffable sadness and beauty of life. In fact, that point gets laid on a bit thick this time around. He can seem like some undiscovered, rural superhero: Sensitive Teen. Despite the strict emotional code of high school, he feels "tempted to weep with some mysterious, nostalgic joy. The warm sunlight on his face seemed to remind him of something -- but he couldn't explain what -- and some vague but pleasant longing filled his chest." As poignant as these moments are, a character who feels too many ineffable things can eventually excite our effable distrust.
It's October of 1941, and though war is raging in Europe and Asia, it's still possible for Americans to pretend they might sit out the conflict. As new seniors, Jim and his buddies "had ruled Aliceville School for less than a month," Earley writes, "but now held this high ground more or less comfortably....He and his friends were it." Their reign, however, is pretty benign. These are the kind of guys who, when provoked, pop off with language like this: "Leave a boy alone, for gosh sakes, why don't you?" Gearing up for a hot weekend, one of them claims, "Nothing makes a girl go crazy like square dancing." Opie could rumble with these ruffians.
Most of the story concerns Jim's forbidden attraction to a part-Cherokee girl named Chrissie, whose father is on the lam. She lives up the mountain with her mother and grandparents in a state of degrading servitude to a wealthy apple farmer. Chrissie already has a boyfriend, but he's off in the Navy; for that reason, lusting after her -- even by Jim's chaste standards -- feels adulterous and vaguely unpatriotic. Nonetheless, sitting behind her in history class, Jim studies her hair "with a scholar's single-minded intensity....It became a warm, rich space into which it suddenly seemed possible to fall and become lost."
Adolescent romance is a charming, if well-worn subject, and Earley handles it here in a charming, if well-worn way. Driving alone in his car, after an argument with a friend, Jim comes face to face with his new ardor: "Something warm inflated and rose inside his chest, replacing in a single moment his ill temper with a growing elation. 'I love Chrissie Steppe,' he said out loud, realizing as he did so that the words were carrying him over some momentous boundary he had never known existed. Jim didn't know in what strange country this unexpected crossing landed him, or what dangers faced him, only that he found the vistas glorious to consider."
The object of his affection, though, considers him too naive, too optimistic and too privileged to take seriously. Jim and Chrissie have a few impromptu, adorable dates, but she won't accept his declarations. "I think you're a very nice boy," she tells him, "but I also think you've never learned you don't get to have everything you want." Jim lost his father a week before he was born, but he's been raised by his mother and her three brothers amid a wealth of affection and material support that has carried them through the Depression in far better condition than many of their neighbors. After visiting Chrissie's cabin in which "the walls were sealed with newspapers and pieces of cardboard," Jim begins to consider the pernicious effects of poverty and the severely cramped dimensions of others' lives.
The novel builds slowly to these more serious themes -- probably too slowly. Although Jim the Boy walked the line between banality and profundity with exquisite sensitivity, here the balance is not so well executed. Many of these chapters are warm and graceful but not sufficiently essential, and the writing isn't note-perfect enough to sustain the lack of import. Ivan Doig pulled off this sort of pastoral childhood a couple of years ago in a lovely Montana novel called The Whistling Season, but The Blue Star too often grows slack, too enamored with Jim's precious epiphanies.
Fortunately, as the novel nears its conclusion, these merely nostalgic scenes begin to acquire real emotional depth. The bubble of Jim's pleasant adolescence pops, and he must confront some life-shattering events -- pain his mother and uncles have effectively shielded him from. "The attendant beauty and sadness of the world suddenly seemed to him available for pondering in a way they never had before," Earley writes. "He felt as though he had spent his life until this evening poised over an exam, waiting for the teacher to say, 'Begin.' Now he had begun."
These late chapters are as good as anything Earley has ever written -- unashamedly sweet and pure and sad -- but I'm worried that only patient readers will hang on to reap these rewards. That would be too bad because by the end I was enthralled again, and the novel left me eager for the story of Jim's adventures in World War II.
Ron Charles is a senior editor of Book World.
Books mentioned in this post