Friend of Bacon Carolyn Hall has been dreading holiday travel. What she likes most about the holidays is spending time with extended family, but what she likes least is getting to them: “car rides, usually involving stop-and-go Interstate traffic, to places where it makes no sense to fly: Atlanta, Asheville and Chattanooga. And though I don’t mind the cold in the evening or if the sun’s out, I find gray, cloudy days and 50-degree rain terribly depressing.”
She’s dreaming of their family vacation in France last summer (notice author Dean King photo-bombing at left). She’s dreaming of fall break at Amelia Island, where she enjoyed reading The Housekeeper and the Professor by Yoko Ogawa (Bacon review here). Carolyn has been thinking about books quite a lot lately. She is the inaugural chair of Ensworth’s Parent Education Committee, soon to host an informal discussion for parents with Head of School David Braemer on the 2014 All-Faculty Read, Malcolm Gladwell’s David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants (2013). “The Parent Education Committee will be working with the school and Parnassus to select the first All-Parent Read – for summer 2015 – in an effort to encourage parents, too, to be lifelong learners,” Carolyn says. “The Ensworth All-Parent Read is intended to help us understand the human experience, put ourselves in someone else’s shoes, better understand another perspective, and continue our search for truth – the latter phrase being the school’s motto.”
Today, she reviews a short story collection that has made her think deeply in all the right ways – Mr. Tall, by Nashville author Tony Earley.
My husband and I were introduced, by mutual friends, to author Tony Earley and his wife soon after they moved to Nashville in the late ‘90s. We ate dinner near the Green Hills Mall because our friends, both English professors at Sewanee, were in town to do some Christmas shopping. As you can imagine, the Halls were certainly the literary lightweights around that table, but ever since, my husband and I have read most everything Tony’s published. I loved the novels, Jim the Boy (2000) and The Blue Star (2008), while my husband was partial to the collections of short stories, Here We Are in Paradise (1994) and Somehow Form a Family (2001). To this day he says “The Prophet From Jupiter” may be the best short story he’s ever read.
I’ve just finished Mr. Tall (2014), Tony Earley’s latest collection of six short stories and a novella, and find myself continuing to be a convert to short stories. Maybe it’s the frantic pace of life that leaves little time, other than on vacation, to delve into a novel, but maybe it’s also that well-crafted stories, like Earley’s, draw me in so completely that, without thinking, I’ve shut out all of the peripheral noise. What a gift!
One thing that struck me about this collection is that while some of the stories return to the familiar haunts of Western North Carolina featured in Earley’s prior works, two of the six stories are actually set in and around Nashville and feature familiar landmarks and cultural references. It made me wonder if Nashville is home to Earley now. Or if it’s just where he works and lives. I often wonder the same thing about myself, particularly during the holidays.
“The Stolen Girl” is set in East Nashville and opens with this line: “Jesse James, while hiding from the law in Nashville in 1875, had lived for a time at the address where Mrs. Virgil Wilson’s house now stood.” The story is a poignant one of love and loss, growing old, and two stolen girls – one past, one present.
“Haunted Castles of the Barrier Islands” resonated with me because it’s about a couple facing an uncertain future as empty-nesters after their only child, a daughter, goes off to college. They surprise their daughter on her nineteenth birthday and find that she, like many of Earley’s characters, seems to have landed with the wrong boy. The parents are distraught and take out their frustrations on each other as they drive home by way of the Outer Banks. Encounters with a thick bank of fog, a pink neon sign, and an old married couple shake things up in a way that help Darryl and Cheryl realize that, though the future may be uncertain, things are “good enough,” and that’s okay.
The title story, “Mr. Tall,” is set in the hardscrabble world of Depression era mountain hollers. A young bride finds herself pregnant, alone and responsible for a small farm an hour and a half (by mule) out of town while her husband is away building roads in the Smokies. Mr. Tall, the recluse who lives up the road, is spoken of in hushed and foreboding tones in town, but the young woman’s loneliness and curiosity get the best of her, so she sneaks onto his property time and again in hopes of catching a glimpse of the mysterious legend. What she finds is surprising, in many ways.
The collection continues with “The Cryptozoologist,” “Yard Art,” and “Just Married,” and culminates with the novella, “Jack and the Mad Dog.” Now I have to admit that I’ve never been to the Storytelling Festival in Jonesborough, TN, though I certainly know of it, so I was deep into the story before I caught on to what Earley was doing. However, once I had that “aha” moment, the story, rich with layered references to tall tales, nursery rhymes, literary devices, and The Wizard of Oz, made more and more sense. Frankly, “Jack and the Mad Dog” is pretty brilliant.
I don’t want to give the story away, but when I stumbled upon Earley’s widely hailed 2010 Commencement Address at his alma mater, Warren Wilson College, near Asheville, NC, I found this paragraph near the end. It sums up the story perfectly:
I’m asking you to imagine yourself as a single word in a story still being written. The implications of this particular word will determine whether the story is ultimately one of darkness or one of light. I’m asking you to be the one good word on which everything else depends.
Good advice this holiday season as we travel home or stay home, welcome home grown children or open our own homes because, like Jack, we are each “in a story still being written.”
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For Carolyn’s prior review on National Book Award winner Redeployment, by Phil Klay, please click here.