Friday, June 3, 2005

MSS, Book the First: Tony Earley's Here We Are in Paradise

Because I'm not in grad school, I can tell you: Tony Earley is a pimp. I like this book. I like it a lot. Read it.
It's not the most consistent collection of stories I've read, not like Jesus' Son or Airships, but the first two stories, "The Prophet from Jupiter" and "Charlotte" are about as good as it gets in contemporary short fiction, formally interesting works with heart and humor and razzmatazz.
"The Prophet From Jupiter" is the story of a dam keeper whose pregnant wife has left him for the new chief of police. Except that's a piss poor summary of what's going on in a story featuring the Prophet from Jupiter, a mayor battling cancer, a social-climbing assistant dam keeper, a labrador retriever named Shithead endlessly chasing ducks in the water, Junie Wilson who is surrounded by ghosts, plus the history of the town of Uree, 85 feet below the surface of Glen Lake. There is a slim, conventional story at the core of this piece, the dam keeper's attempts to catch a man-sized catfish (external conflict) as he deals with his estrangement from his wife (you guessed it, internal conflict). But this piece leans more heavily on a lyrical structure, moving among the threads above, sometimes sentence to sentence in a way that sometimes leaves the reader teetering on the very rim of Non Sequitur Canyon. Like this:
This is what it's like to live on Lake Glen: in the spring, before the water is warm enough for the skiers to get on the lake, the sun shines all the way through you and you twist down inside yourself, like a seed, and think about growing. There are red and white signs on the water side of the dam that say DANGER MAINTAIN A DISTANCE OF 200 YARDS, but you can't read them from that far away. In April, the wind blows down out of the mountains and across the cove toward my house, and the sun and the water smell like my wife's hair. I don't know any other way to tell you about it. Along the western shore, in the campgrounds beside the highway, gas lanterns glow like ghosts against the mountain. Boys and girls who will never see one another again, and somehow know it, make desperate promises and rub against each other in the laurel; they wade in their underwear in the cold river. In the summer night bullwhips pop like rifles.
The sense of closure is brought about not by the success or failure of the narrator's attempts to catch the fish and accept the end of his marriage, but by a dramatic, external event and the artful collision of all the narrative and thematic threads, illuminating for the reader the lives of all the characters involved. Pretty tricky. Perhaps too tricky? I liked it, but YMMV, as the kids say.
"Charlotte" is a philosophical work about the difference between lust and Romantic love, also the big city ambitions of a low rent city--as determined by examining, sometimes discursively, professional wrestling. Again, I apologize for the piss poor summary, but it's hard to summarize. This one is perhaps slightly more conventional than "The Prophet from Jupiter" in that there is a conflict between two people re: lust vs. love. But the resolution is again the result of an external event. The story relies on illumination of the characters for its closure.
If you can't tell, I'm rather impressed with how these two stories are put together. I hope to steal some of that for my own writing. What about other MSS reading memes? One thing I'm on the lookout for this summer is a bit the Capps in the stories, and I've turned him up immediately. Southern writers (following Faulkner, I suppose) are famous for the way the past lives in the present of their stories. Earley is no different. Many of his characters live in towns so full of family history that they see generations of their ancestors superimposed (like a photograph, yes, his metaphor, not mine) on the present. And for the first time, I realized that this is how Yours Truly grew up as well. In my hometown, I shopped for comic books in the drug store where my mother had worked twenty plus years before I was born. I knew where the Interstate cut across a defunct baseball field where my grandfather, who died before I was born, had played. Once, after a Little League game, my father pointed out the spot, next to a tree behind the field, where he said he'd first kissed my mother. (Reebs.) You get the picture. I identified with the feeling, and a little cursory inspection of my MFA thesis reveals I'd actually worked a little of this into my fiction, just not deliberately bringing the point home the way Earley does. Makes me wonder why. Boy, am I bone headed.
One more point before I sign off: Formally (again) I am struck by how Earley writes all the way around a story before getting to the point. He gathers together a lot of context about characters, setting, and so on, piling them together so that the reader understands the gravity of what might otherwise seem a slight story, a mere anecdote or slice of life. I file this away as a possible mark of the Southern writer. A little preliminary investigation finds this technique in stories by Mark Richard, Barry Hannah, and Lee Smith. It's a difficult thing to pull off because while you gather all of that context, the story stands still. So you've got to keep it pretty interesting, and this can make the writer seem guilty of tossing in eccentric details for the sake of seeming eccentric. It's death to be caught trying too hard. Still, I find myself anxious to give it a shot.

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