I don’t care if it is considered too premature or too provincial to suggest that local Rutherford County native and Warren Wilson graduate Tony Earley might be one of the best writers in the country—I’m gonna suggest it, anyway.
Tony Earley is easily one of the best writers in the country today.
First of all, in 1997, there was the brilliant collection of short stories Here We Are in Paradise that included “Charlotte,” the much-anthologized, impossibly ingenious (and hysterical) story in which a young couple’s struggles between love and power, idealism and reality, good and evil are symbolically waged in a certain soulless, hormone-soaked New South city, and ultimately decided by the foregone conclusions that are professional wrestling matches. In “Charlotte,” Earley’s satire is smoothly reasoning, situational, and largely without heat, yet devastating in its overall impact, like a river that rises slowly but remorselessly over its bank and swallows everything before it.
Then, in 2000, there was the wistful, gorgeously written, and ultimately triumphant Jim the Boy, a parable of a childhood perfectly remembered that is about a million pages shorter than anything Marcel Proust ever wrote, thank God. And yet Jim the Boy is every bit as remarkable as Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past in expressing the sheer evocative power wrought by certain tastes, sounds, smells, slants of light, TV commercials and programs. Earley’s pellucid writing style, heartfelt emotions and arresting imagery surround the reader in that waking-dreamlike state that defines childhood in all of its utter clarity/total chaos and its seemingly limitless potential for both boredom and excitement.
Now comes his latest collection of autobiographical essays, Somehow Form a Family. The title is from the lyrics to that implausible yet strangely compelling ‘70’s TV show The Brady Bunch. Indeed, it is the very implausibility of the Bradys “somehow forming a family” that attracted the young Earley, who is eager to escape the all too “real” drama offered by his precarious, depression-laden, tragedy-rich family life in Rutherford County, North Carolina, and to obsess over the formulaic consolations offered by the “unreal” world of ‘70’s TV shows, instead.
The majority of Earley’s stories in Somehow Form a Family are profound attempts at determining—and someday even accepting—one’s true identity. Incredibly enough, these are tasks that Earley seems to have been born to undertake. No amount of TV watching seems to have deterred him from his fateful chore. Like so many writers, Earley’s clarity of vision and exquisiteness of perception seem to have arisen from his perceived role as a perpetual Misfit Toy. Or rather, in the dialect of “mountain English,” which is so lovingly and thoughtfully explored in his story “The Quare Gene,” he feels thoroughly odd or “quare.”
“Sometimes the truest answer to the question ‘Who are you?’ is ‘I don’t know,’” Earley writes. In this statement lies the crushing honesty and inspirational courage of Somehow Form a Family. Whether he is describing the loss of his teenaged sister to a car accident, or struggling with the icy grip of depression that afflicts the sensitive and knowing, Earley’s writing is always an uncompromising attempt to both derive the authenticity of every experience and to subsequently validate his own fragile sense of identity by the strength of the impressions cast by a particular experience. A typical worldly-wise assessment is never offered without an unflinching look at his own weaknesses, and more times than not, it is often accompanied by much congenial wit and humor, as this meditation on conventional Christianity suggests:
The sad truth is that I do not like Christians much, particularly when they congregate. I think that whenever two or three people gather in God’s name, it’s only a matter of time until they start trouble. The sight of a million Christians praying together in Washington, D.C. filled me with dread. I’ve found the churches I’ve attended to be filled with people who are as ill-tempered, hypocritical, judgmental, and divisive as I am, and I’m invariably as disappointed in them as I am in myself.
Earley seems to be simultaneously intrigued and appalled by his unique perspective of “quareness.” He is saved from utter despair and cynicism by his sense of wonder towards his ability to somehow never fully inhabit or otherwise belong to the colliding worlds around him, and yet feel, all the same, the excruciating pain that inevitably arises from these collisions. Yet he does belong to these worlds, and not just in the ironic sense of the alienated writer, but rather as a sincere and expressive interpreter of the bizarre correspondences that exist among the remnants of the world of his 18th century Scots-Irish farming ancestors, the modern world that pushes and shoves towards a more efficient cruelty and meaninglessness of existence, and the image-rich virtual world of Bugs and Daffy, Barney and Andy, Gilligan and Skipper, Luke and Laura, etc. Our World as We Now Know It. His problem and ours:
For better or worse, I grew up in another South entirely . . . . I am supposed to do something, but I’m not sure what. I go around telling anyone who will listen that I am from the country, but deep down I know it’s a lie. I grew up on Gilligan’s Island, in Mayberry, I’m not sure where. My family is from the country. They are waiting on the porch to see what I will do.
And so is the rest of North Carolina and the world. Because Tony Earley is one of the best writers in the country today.
© Copyright 2001 by KNS Maré