Tony Earley's remarkable debut novel, Jim the Boy, has been eagerly anticipated since excerpts appeared in Granta, The Oxford American, and The New Yorker's 1999 summer fiction issue, which declared Earley one of 20 notable writers embodying the future of American fiction. The full novel surpasses even that promise; this talented new novelist has crafted a work of depth, sensitivity, poise, and power.
Set in Depression-era North Carolina, the novel chronicles the title character's coming of age. Young Jim Glass' father and namesake died suddenly just before the boy's birth. Raised by his mother and three bachelor uncles, ever aware of the specter of his absent father, the boy becomes a sturdy and thoughtful lad. The novel begins with Jim's 10th birthday, and the following year of his life is remarkable in several ways. The county opens a new school, which Jim and others from town must share with children from the mountain. An initial rivalry with the leader of the mountain boys develops into a firm friendship that's jeopardized as Jim confronts the threat of polio. The young man also leaves the environs of his home for the first time, traveling with one of his uncles out of the state to negotiate for a pair of prized Belgian horses. Lurking in the background is the specter of Jim's grandfather, a formidable moonshiner whom Jim's father defied by leaving the mountain and marrying Jim's mother on her lowland farm. Just as the nearby mountain is always present on the valley's horizon, the image of Jim's grandfather lurks like an ogre in the boy's consciousness; a journey with the intent to confront the old man frames the book's climax.
Earley departs from his central narrative in several places, providing background on Jim's family by quoting letters and presenting several vignettes that capture the hardship and beauty of life on the family farm. Throughout the book, the writer snares those few crucial moments in which Jim realizes the majesty of life and the love of his family. He also notes tantalizing instances when the boy realizes such a moment has passed too late to fully appreciate it. Earley crafts his novel in a style reminiscent of Shaker furniture; it is lean and lacks unnecessary adornment, yet possesses a spare and harmonious beauty. This superb debut novel speaks to readers in words that recur long after they finish turning the pages.
Gregory Harris is a writer and editor in Indianapolis.