Tony Earley’s “Jim the Boy” may have been the least exciting novel of 2000. The title pretty much sums it up: A fairly ordinary boy is raised by his mother and three uncles in Depression-era Aliceville, S.C. Jim’s father died before he was born, but otherwise the boy enjoys a happy childhood.
The narrative arc includes no crime sprees, no mysteries, no supernatural events, no action of any kind, really, and to boot, the story is told in such a simple, straightforward manner that many critics compared it to children’s literature. So, not even any swearing.
That said, a lot of readers were growing tired of all of the above, yet the plain loveliness of Earley’s writing, along with his earnest and admirable characters, struck a chord. The tale was serialized in the Star Tribune, and Earley appeared on Minnesota Public Radio’s Talking Volumes series http://www.mpr.org/books/titles/earley_jimtheboy.shtml with roots rocker Paul Burch playing backup. (Burch’s “Last of My Kind” album was inspired by Earley’s novel.)
Earley returns tonight (March 27) to read from his next book, “The Blue Star,” which picks up Jim’s story at the end of high school. If you think Jim’s about to let loose with sex, drugs, drag-racing and a foul mouth, think again. But Jim the young man’s story grows more complex with every installment, and it’ll get darker, says Earley, who now plans to write five books in the series.
MinnPost caught up with him via phone, from his home in Nashville, where he is also a professor at Vanderbilt University.
MinnPost: Why did it tale seven years to write a follow-up to “Jim the Boy”? Will the next one come out in 2014?
Tony Earley: God, I hope not. After “Jim the Boy,” I think I was just afraid to write. What makes a book work or not remains largely mysterious. After “Jim,” I felt I’d done this really good thing, but I had no idea how I’d done it, and I wasn’t sure I could do it again. But “The Blue Star” took away that pressure. I’m not worried anymore. I’m going to start on the next book this summer.
MP: What secrets can you share about the next installment?
TE: It’s going to be significantly different. It starts in the light, goes down into the dark, comes back into the light. It’s going to be significantly darker and have some technical challenges that the other books didn’t have. It will take place after World War II, and explore some of the myths of that era.
We don’t often get a portrayal of the World War II period as one of darkness. That’s a great national myth. To say that soldiers from World War I were shell-shocked, and soldiers in Vietnam had post-traumatic-stress disorder, how is it possible that soldiers of WWII didn’t suffer in the same way? The soldiers didn’t just come back and everyone was happy. I want to blow that up a little bit.
MP: Do you feel compelled to tell Jim’s war story because you’re writing during a war today?
TE: I’d be forced to deal with WWII one way or the other, because Jim lives through those years. But the current war is certainly on my mind. I think my feelings about the Iraq war came through most in the Uncle Zeno sections in “The Blue Star.” Is it possible to be patriotic and not support a war? He shows that it is. His position is unpopular them — and that was supposed to be the war to end all wars. And, whoops!
MP: You’re going to be living with Jim for much of your career. Are you worried you’ll tire of him?
TE: For a while after the first novel, I wanted to escape from Aliceville. I was worried about my reputation and what “they” might think if I kept writing about these books. They are odd books, and they are swimming upstream. No one is writing quite like this. But now I think if I can write five of these, that would be a worthwhile contribution.
MP: How do you find them odd?
TE: They don’t look like contemporary. They are quieter and they use methods from young adult literature and classic fiction, and they are un-ironic, in a very ironic culture.
MP: Everyone remarks on the missing irony factor. Is that you, or is that Jim?
TE: Both. Jim is an inherent sweet and earnest person. And me, I just got tired of irony. An ironic life is pretty exhausting. I just want to think it’s still possible to believe in things, that it’s still possible for people to be virtuous — or at least attempt to be. I don’t want to live in a world where first, I have to acknowledge that everything is stupid.
MP: And your world has changed dramatically since you began writing about Jim.
TE: Yes, I’m thinking about it even more because I’m a father now. How does one raise a good person in a bad world? It’s my job and my wife’s job to lead this lovely little person into a safe, happy and productive life.
A few weeks ago on TV, David Letterman was talking with Colin Farrell about their young children. And Letterman was saying that he felt so transformed by his love for his child, he didn’t see why the whole world wasn’t transformed by that love, and he didn’t see why all parents didn’t feel that love and act accordingly. And that’s the King of Irony talking!
What: Tony Earley reads from “The Blue Star”
When: 7:30 p.m., March 27
Where: Magers & Quinn Booksellers, 3038 Hennepin Ave. S., Minneapolis
How much: Free