The worst thing about being a book reviewer is that you occasionally have to read work that you would rather burn. The best thing, though, is that sometimes you will be sent a wonderful book that you might not have read otherwise. When you are very, very lucky, you are sent something like Tony Earley’s new novel.
Jim the Boy is a quiet little gem of a book. Set in the tiny town of Aliceville, North Carolina, it introduces us to Jim Glass, one of the most winning characters of recent fiction. Jim lives with his mother and three uncles, Uncle Zeno and Uncle Coran and Uncle Al – always referred to as such because that is how Jim knows them. His father died the week before he was born, and his mother, who never got over the loss, is described in one of the novel’s many poignant metaphors as pulling her grief behind her like a plow:
The uncles had long since given up on trying to talk her into leaving the plow where it lay. Instead they grew used to stepping over, or walking inside, the deep furrows she left in her wake.
Although the action takes place in the mid 1930s, the Great Depression is present in the book mostly as atmosphere; Jim’s own family, though not rich, gets by.
The novel is modest in scope, as befits its subject. It begins on Jim’s tenth birthday and ends on his eleventh. In between, there are no earth-shaking events, no great undertakings other than that of growing up. Jim lives through triumphs and tragedies, yes, but those as might befall any ten-year-old boy of his time and place. Drama arises from the question of his mother remarrying, but also from that of who will win the greasy-pole contest at his school’s Big Day. Jim sees the ocean for the first time, and it affects him powerfully, but not as much as the arrival of electricity in his town. So brilliantly does Earley enter the consciousness of a ten-year-old that ordinary adult priorities are subordinated, allowing the reader to comprehend Jim’s world exactly as Jim himself does. When a friend contracts polio, that is a very serious thing, indeed, but when Jim decides to give up his beloved baseball glove, the moment is heartbreaking.
Earley writes with enviable confidence and laid-back style. His sentences are superbly crafted, full of vivid imagery and well-chosen detail, yet they flow with an easy grace, carrying the reader along. He especially shines at depicting the sensibility of a precocious child. Everything Jim encounters becomes a source of wonder, from his new school’s unfinished ceilings to the morning air:
The world at that early hour seemed newly made, unfinished; the air, still sweet with dew, an invention thought up that morning. In the low places near the river, stray ghosts of fog still hunted among the treesâ€¦.The sky, in a moment Jim didn’t notice until the moment had passed, turned blue, as if it had never tried the color before and wasn’t sure anyone would like it.
Every character is beautifully drawn, coming alive through inflections and gentle quirks. The uncles in particular, though they start off almost indistinguishable from each other, are gradually individualized until each one is fully distinct and memorable: Coran with his sly sense of humor, Al, gruff but kindly, and Zeno as the sort of father figure everyone wishes he had.
Jim the Boy does not have a conventional plot or an easily defined storyline. The book’s structure is more anecdotal than linear, dropping into Jim’s life for a day, then picking up with another day a few months later, and so on. In lesser hands this might feel disjointed, but Earley guides the reader smoothly through these slices of life. He could probably have added more of them, as the book would not suffer from being longer, but nothing seems lacking as it is. As a character, Jim does grow from one birthday to the next, and the journey contained in that inner growth substitutes admirably for a more traditional external adventure.
The world rises up around Jim, filled with poetry, and it’s a joy to read. This is one of those rare books that, when I finished it, left me both completely satisfied and wanting more. I hesitate to call for a sequel – I can easily imagine a Disneyfied Jim franchise, leading up to Jim the Teenager and Jim Returns – but Tony Earley would make me very happy if I could meet this boy again.