Americans like to venerate those things we’ve allowed to disappear from society. Like the ageless codes defining what it means to be a good man, a good woman — to be honorable, trustworthy, loyal. Often, the desire to reclaim these attributes takes the lazy form of nostalgia. Occasionally, we are reminded that these notions are vital to our humanity — not just old-fashioned, decorative manners.
There are few American writers working today who capture this idea with the literary weight of Tony Earley.
Earley’s austere narrative style, with sentences that glide, like poetry, directly to the meaning of things, can only be described as classic.
Set at the start of the 1940s, his latest novel, “The Blue Star” (Little, Brown, $23.99), is the follow-up to his 2000 debut, “Jim the Boy.” The endearing protagonist, Jim Glass, is now 17 years old and has fallen in love with Chrissie, a half-Cherokee girl from Lynn’s Mountain. The naivety of childhood soon begins to crumble beneath the immensity of this love. Chrissie’s poor, oppressive daily existence is in stark contrast to Jim’s. He has grown up in relative prosperity, swaddled by the love of his doting mother and three uncles, who operate a farm, store and gristmill, and take pains throughout both novels to teach Jim to be upright and decent.
“You have to choose to be a good man,” says his Uncle Zeno, with whom he has lived since his father died, one week before his birth. “You have to choose every minute of every day. As soon as you don’t, you’re lost.”
Earley shows us the essence of youth. The boy learns — as all boys, no matter what decade they live in, must eventually learn — about the agonies of love and the demands of manhood.
Tragedy is there; this is no Hallmark tale. But the troubles that afflict the characters in “The Blue Star” are not unnecessarily seedy, nor overblown. They consist of the tragedies inherent in human experience: husbands die, boys go off to war, hearts are broken, opportunities are squandered, regret looms. These are events that do not change with the times. Only the context within which they occur alters.
The story is a simple one. It’s the story of a boy painstakingly growing into a man, and of people trying to forge honest lives. And in Earley’s rendering, the qualities they rely on are not, even to a modern reader, the remnants of some bygone era, but are alive inside us, embers that need only a bit of air to reignite.