Of all the literary styles represented in last year's "20 Writers for the 21st Century" issue of the New Yorker, Tony Earley's was the one you'd most likely take home to Mama. Unlike that smart-alecky David Foster Wallace or that grouchy Sherman Alexie or -- especially -- that icky William Vollman, Earley's writing seemed blithely inoffensive. It was polite, sincere and ineffusive; conservative but not reactionary; ambitious but not difficult; charming but not flirtatious. In this regard, Earley seemed a rather unlikely member of that diverse and sassy cast, as if Opie Taylor had stumbled onto the wrong stage set. "The Wide Sea," included in that issue, was excerpted from Earley's debut novel, "Jim the Boy," which readers have been eagerly awaiting since his inclusion, three years prior to his New Yorker coronation, in Granta's "Best of Young American Novelists" issue. (Earley, like Chris Offut, had the curious distinction of being named one of the nation's best young novelists without ever having published a novel.)
"Jim the Boy" is everything the excerpts foretold: a polite, sincere and ineffusive novel bearing a kind of balmy ministerial charm that will endear it to mamas everywhere. The boy of the title, Jim, lives with his mother and her three bachelor brothers in a tiny, Rockwellian North Carolina town in the '30s. Jim turns 10 on the first page, and the remainder of the novel follows his itty-bitty footsteps through that year and just slightly beyond.
He tries unsuccessfully to hoe cornfields ("I've been thinking it's about time for me to go to work with y'all," he tells the uncles at breakfast); he receives, as a birthday gift, a baseball from a seed salesman with an eye toward courting Jim's mother ("Thanks, Whitey!" Jim sputters); he accompanies one of the uncles to South Carolina to see about buying some horses, and they make a side trip to the beach, where little Jim gets his first inkling of how gosh-darn big the world is; he goes to school, where he encounters "mountain boys," who are different from "town boys," and the world expands that much farther; he beats his nemesis, a Quaker mountain boy, in a greased-pole climbing contest and is startled by his opponent's gracious reaction to defeat ("Penn was smiling and clapping, as if he was pleased that Jim, and not himself, had made it to the top of the pole and claimed the prize"); he's rescued from an alley fight by a quietly noble black field hand; he spies on his mother refusing the seed salesman's marriage proposal (in a letter to her dead husband, one of several italicized asides that Earley includes, Jim's mother writes, "I told myself that you had gone away to prepare a home in a better place and that you would send for me when it was ready. I swore that this was how I would live my life, that I would be faithful to you and married to you until such time ..."); he plays catch in front of a train alleged to contain Ty Cobb; and, finally, he heads up into the mountains with his uncles to meet his granddaddy, a thuggish old bootlegger, and, once again, from that high-up perch, realizes what a gosh-darn big world it is.
Many of the novel's chapters conclude, fable-like, with easy and sugary morals, usually but not always conferred on Jim by one of the uncles: "Don't ever make fun of the misfortune of others," Jim is told at the beach; "Good citizenship is important," the seed salesman offers; "Nobody ever gets anything all by himself," Jim learns after the uncles explain how Jim's going second in the greased-pole contest boosted his chances (less grease).
Due partly to those clean-scrubbed lessons, Earley's novel often reads like a dusty Boy Scout manual plucked from the shelves of an antique bookshop -- it's dutiful, plodding and altogether shadowless. His blindingly white characters utter their lines like actors in a bad church play, and his depiction of Depression-era North Carolina seems like a wet dream sponged straight from Jesse Helms' pillow. The uncles, for one, are so sweetly upstanding that after a while I longed for William Faulkner's bachelor uncles, Buck and Buddy, to enter the novel just to beat them up. Even John Grisham admits more moral ambivalence in his fiction than Earley; for that matter, even the Bible admits more. Earley could have penned this story using talking barnyard animals for characters ("Jim the Piglet") and achieved more realism and depth. "'Jim the Boy' is a book for adults," the publicity material insists. To which I might add: Hallmark specials are for adults, too.
John Gardner once wrote: "Really good fiction has a staying power that comes from its ability to jar, turn on, move the whole intellectual and emotional history of the reader. If the reader is a house, the really good book is a jubilant party that spreads through every room of it, or else a fire ..." Tony Earley's debut moves through that readerly house not like a party and certainly not like a fire. Instead, it drifts about like cheap air freshener -- cloyingly sweet, overwhelmingly perfumed and smelling like no mountain meadow anywhere in the whole gosh-darn big world.