On Tuesday, Tony Earley released a new collection of stories, Mr. Tall. Two decades have passed since Earley’s debut collection, Here We Are in Paradise, and though he has released two novels and a memoir since that time, for short fiction addicts (and lovers of southern writing), the publication of a new book of stories is big news. Reading the stories of Mr. Tall is something like that moment when Max Mercy realizes that the older Roy Hobbs wearing the Knights jersey in the batter’s box is the same kid who struck out the Whammer at the beginning of The Natural. Translation: time has passed, but Earley’s still got the magic and a lot of wisdom to go with it.
To continue the Hobbs metaphor (which seems fair given that Earley has been known to wear a Knights ball cap on the regular), you can really feel the silver bullet in Earley’s gut in these stories. They are haunted and haunting in their imagery and landscapes—an aging couple’s crumbling and moldy seaside inn being slowly flooded on North Carolina’s Outer Banks, a sixteen-year-old bride taken by her husband via train and mule into her new home in the upper reaches of Appalachia, and the ghost of Jesse James appearing in a lonely old lady’s basement in Nashville. These stories took some hard, pained living to find their form on the page.
Earley is at his most lyrical with “Just Married,” an episodic story of three separate couples cleverly whittled down to just two. Take this quiet meditation on Ray and Charlene:
Ray was a newspaper reporter until he forgot how to spell. First, he lost track of the number of r’s in “sheriff,” then he lost the f’s. “Commission” began to look right no matter how he spelled it. Charlene teaches information technology at a small, Christian college. That’s how they came to this little town by the river. She is serious and pale, unashamed to pray out loud in restaurants. Ray stopped going to church with her about the time the letters in the word “Episcopalian” flew apart as if they had been held together by springs. He could still spell “God,” but found that he no longer cared to.
Mr. Tall closes with an 80-page novella, “Jack and the Mad Dog,” an abbreviated version of which appeared in The New Yorker in 2012. After the weight and sadness of the earlier stories, you really get to see Earley at play with “Jack.” The final story is a metafictional mash-up of elements of aged and sharpened nursery rhymes (“Jack and the Beanstalk” et al.), Appalachian folk music (“Tom Dooley”), and a twist on The Wizard of Oz. In spite of all the fun, Earley squirreled a bit of heart into the novella too so that by the final page, the close comes with a sting.
On Wednesday, the Los Angeles Review of Books reviewed Andrew Lam’s 2013 story collection, The Birds of Paradise Lost. Birds represents the fictional debut for Lam, known first for his nonfiction and as an editor at New America Media (NAM), a unique collaboration of 3,000+ ethnic news outlets.
In this compelling collection, Lam, who left war-torn Vietnam in the 1970s with his family and a plane-load of refugees, explores the life of the immigrant in 13 stories. LARB’s Joy Horowitz explains the results of Lam’s efforts: “…the true immigrant narrative is not about turning rags to riches; it’s about fending off the ghosts of war.”
You can read “The Palmist,” a lovely and hopeful story from San Francisco’s 38 Geary bus at Huff Post, or listen to Lam read “Grandma’s Tales” at The Story. You can also see Lam’s analysis of the risks and opportunities of freelance journalists chasing stories in war-torn lands here.