Sunday, July 27, 2008

Jim the Boy

I'm ashamed to admit the first time I tried reading this book I put it down. "What a dumb title for a book," my wife said when she saw what I was reading. Last summer, about sixty pages in, I put it away, thinking it too simple and quiet.

But of two of my good writing friends were unwavering in their testimony about this novel, so I picked it up again a few days ago, and I am so glad I did.

Jim the Boy is a wonderful novel, one of those books other writers pass around. It's the kind of book people will still be reading fifty years from now. From the perfect metaphors to the indelible scenes-- a twilight baseball game, a town blazing with new electricity--this novel draws you in to a universal experience. I love the stories of Jim's father, which come second hand through his uncles. I've dogeared passages that I'd like to share with you below.

Compelling Scenes
It's one thing to be a sensory writer, to write in such a way that the reader sees, hears, tastes, touches, or smells the moment we are trying to capture. The hard part is rendering that moment so that it also resonates on a deeper emotional level. Here's Jim, describing what should be a joyous moment, when electricity finally comes to Aliceville:

"Jim climbed up on the steps and looked down onto Aliceville as if he were a prince and the town was his kingdom. Soon he felt weighted by a prince's worries. The brightness of a few lights burning in Aliceville only magnified the darkness that still surrounded the town. The uncles' electric lights drew fragile boundaries around their houses; around those boundaries a blackness crept that suddenly seemed as big and powerful as God. Jim had never noticed the darkness before. He felt on the verge of knowing something that he didn't want to know. He jumped off the steps to be closer to the uncles" (149).

Notice how this moment derives its power. Jim is a "prince," the darkness is "God," or the "unknowable." What could have been a simple image, a town lit up, instead has all of these mythological connotations. It's not what we were expecting and that rendering of the moment, emotionally complex and even contradictory, is what takes our breath away.

Potent Metaphors
"Jim stepped closer to Mr. Carson without realizing it. He had heard every story his mother and uncles had to tell about his father so many times that over the years his father had become less vivid. It was as if each story was a favorite shirt that had been worn and washed and hung in the sun so often that its fabric, while soft and smooth and comfortable, was faded to where its color was only a shadow of what it had once been" (104).

Now that's a rather plain metaphor plucked from a lovely book. It does convey how the telling of familiar stories dims their power over time, rendering them comfortable. And then along comes somebody one day who shakes up how we see things.

Starling Description
Here's Jim viewing his grandfather, the despised Amos, for the first time. "As his eyes adjusted to the light, he made out a bed pushed close to the window. In the center of the bed lay an old man, naked except for a sheet bunched around his waist. His body appeared to be constructed of sharp sticks, covered with the gray paper of a hornets' nest. Yellowed claws twisted from the ends of his fingers and toes. His head lay in a matted nest of long white hair: a bramble of scraggly white beard sprouted on his sunken cheeks. From the dark oval of his mouth came a liquid, metallic rasping. Jim realized in a rush that his grandfather was going to die soon" (222).

This is an old man of the mountains, a whiskey runner who's spent time in jail. I love all the wilderness imagery wrapped up in the description of his body. He almost becomes fairy-tale like, a troll. Through tight observation and startling metaphor the old man becomes otherworldly.

And then there's that final bugaboo, the way to keep a reader involved. Notice how the Uncle's telling of a story Jim has never heard before hooks both boy and the reader hovering over the scene...

"Mountain boy like your daddy ain't scared of nothing, Doc. So there they were. They didn't have a gun and the lantern was broke. They didn't have enough pine knots to keep the fire burning all night, and there was the panther stalking them, just waiting for that fire to die out. And the dogs--and these were dogs that would run a bear to ground--were crawling around their ankles, whimpering, scared to death.'

'What did my daddy do then?'

'Well, just as the fire was about to die out, the panther screamed a second time. And it was closer. This time it sounded like it was right there in the light where they were. And then it spoke.'

'It spoke?'

'It spoke. It said, in a woman's voice, 'Help me for I am killed.'

'What happened?' Jim asked. 'What happened then'" (191)?

By writing the scene in dialogue, Tony Earley adds a second layer to the story. The boy's prodding questions add to the urgency. If we were primed for a ghost story, many contemporary readers might roll their eyes, but the way this story is told, in homespun simple dialogue, is chilling. It adds an extra chill knowing how Jim's father died.

These are just a few scenes from a great book. "What happened? What happened then?" That's the question we want our readers asking.

And there is darkness in this story, too. I won't forget Uncle Al shooting those vultures that have come to feed upon horses a farmer killed to keep the bank from taking them. I won't forget Abraham, an African-American, risking his own life to save Jim and a friend after town "roughs" surround them. I won't forget the folklore-tinted story of Jim's father and the "haint" who puts a chill in his heart.

Such scenes, it seems to me, defy summary. I have one final thing to say. If you care about craft, if you care deeply about the human condition, and all the possibilities for goodness that exists in each one of us, then read this book.

Here's the link to my Goodreads review"View'>">View all my reviews.

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