cover image Mr. Tall

Mr. Tall

Tony Earley. Little Brown, $25 (256p) ISBN 978-0-316-24612-5

Earley has grown up. The author of the critically acclaimed novels Jim the Boy and The Blue Star, both set in the 1930s and 1940s American South and concerned with the childhood and teen years of Jim Glass, has moved on. Although the seven works (a novella and stories) in this collection still take place in the South, it is often the New South: for example, rather than a train coming through a whistle-stop town with the famous ball player Ty Cobb aboard, as in Jim the Boy, there’s a Birmingham abortion-clinic bomber on the run in “The Cryptozoologist.” Earley’s attention to aging protagonists is a fresh direction. In the opening story, “Haunted Castles and the Barrier Islands,” a middle-aged couple that runs a little newspaper tries to bring a little zing to their marriage by booking a room at a costal inn, only to find themselves on the verge of slipping into the Atlantic, thanks to rising sea levels. Still, there are many familiar Earley touches. In the title story, a very tall widower living in the mountains silently mourns the death by drowning of his wife and child. But even if apple orchards still conceal secrets, mountain hollows house strange denizens, and the trains rumble reassuringly in the distance, there is undoubtedly a hard edge to this collection. “Jack and the Mad Dog,” the novella that closes the book, riffs on the “Beanstalk” tale with postmodern mischeviousness: the protagonist refers to himself as a “limited omniscient narrator” and proceeds to walk into a “Jack and Jill” story. Welcome, perhaps, to the Late Earley. (Aug.)