Tony Earley’s novels are the Shaker chairs of American literature. They’re well-made, sturdy tales that are stripped of excess and postmodern gimmicks, and they just might last you forever.
His 2000 novel, “Jim the Boy,” became a surprise critical darling and bestseller by taking the tools of children’s literature and bending them to a book for adults. It was a brilliant idea: Adult bookworms (at least of the genus voraciatus fictionus) are constantly searching for a book that will hit us the same way the ones from childhood did, and usually coming up short.
Its sequel, The Blue Star, probably won’t sneak up on people quite the same way, but that’s mostly to the good. The more folks who find Earley’s novels, the more happy readers there’ll be out there.
In the sequel, it’s 1941 and World War II is raging in Europe. Jim’s now a senior in high school and reeling under the force of his first love. The object of his adoration is Chrissie Steppe, who unfortunately happens to be the girl of Bucky Bucklaw, who’s stationed in Hawaii.
Jim can’t stand Bucky, who was “the kind of baseball player who blamed his glove when he booted a ground ball, or his bat when he struck out,” but honor is honor.
He contents himself with touching Chrissie’s long black hair, which falls all over his desk in history class, and is shocked to find out that Chrissie noticed. “It’s attached to my head,” she replies. (When we first meet Chrissie, she’s threatening to beat a smart-aleck “like a borrowed mule.”)
She’s got no time for romance. Where Jim has been coddled, Chrissie’s life has been lived on “the wrong side of the mountain,” as she explains to Jim: not enough sunshine and a chill that never goes away.
“I think you’re a very nice boy,” she tells Jim. “But I also think you’ve never learned you don’t get to have everything you want every time you want it.”
Chrissie’s got her own reasons for staying with Bucky, and none of them have to do with love: Her family lives in a “dog-trot” cabin on the Bucklaw farm, and they’ve got nowhere to go if Bucky’s dad kicks them off his land.
In one of the book’s most resonant chapters, the two explore an abandoned house and dream up a little old lady, Juanita Loretta Rebecca, and man, Hernando Amos Grover, to conduct a shadow courtship for them.
“That make-believe intimacy, and the make-believe years on which it was built, seemed to remain comfortably settled around their shoulders – even as they left Hernando and Juanita sitting in their broken chairs by their ghostly stove, forever arguing about walnuts.”
The uncles settle a little into the background this go-round, and there’s no word from best friend/rival Penn Carson, who’s been spirited off to boarding school. In his place, Earley substitutes would-be ladykiller Dennis Deane, whose goofball antics get a melancholy subplot of their own.
Jim’s friends also include ex-girlfriend Norma, a brainy blonde who still comes over every day to quilt with Jim’s mom, much to Jim’s consternation.
When he complains that they were “just dating,” his Uncle Zeno explains, “You were just dating, Jim. Norma was picking. And when she picked you, your Mama picked her. Norma was going to be the daughter she never had. That’s what that quilt was about.”
As with the first novel, the strongest emotions are those unspoken. In “Jim the Boy,” Earley dealt with racism and mountain versus town rivalries, as well as the Great Depression.
Take the chapter “The Wide Sea,” when Jim travels out of state with Uncle Al to buy two Belgian draft horses – to find only their corpses. Before leaving, the debt-riddled farmer shot all his animals to keep the bank from getting them.
Uncle Al shoots a carrion bird hovering over the carcasses and then takes his nephew for their first view of the ocean. “I wish we could’ve got there sooner,” he tells Jim. “Me too,” Jim replies.
In “The Blue Star,” the rivalry between farmers and “lintheads,” the workers in the cotton mills, and the prejudice Chrissie all too often faces for being half-Cherokee work alongside the war to propel the novel forward.
“The Blue Star” isn’t quite as free from the taint of melodrama as “Jim the Boy”: Chrissie’s mom turns out to be Uncle Zeno’s long-lost love. The coincidence doesn’t feel necessary, but it doesn’t really harm the novel any.
With World War II looming, it feels as if the whole world is living on the “wrong side of the mountain,” and before novel’s end, Jim’s going to have to set off in its shadow. So, a little more drama is probably in order.
But in the end, Earley delivers a rarity: a good story, told without fuss or flourish, and with the assurance of someone who knows what he's doing on every page.
• Yvonne Zipp regularly reviews fiction for the Monitor.