Tony Earley writes warm, funny stories that will break your heart. His humor and empathy will whisk you from beginning to end, and the sadness and regret at his stories’ core will resonate in your memory.
“Mr. Tall” is Earley’s fifth book and second story collection. He debuted in 1994 with the collection “Here We Are in Paradise” and later published a book of memoir-ish essays and two novels, “Jim the Boy” and its sequel, “The Blue Star.” Earley already was an admired and praised writer before the release of “Jim the Boy,” but that book cemented his reputation among the best in the business.
Here he has assembled a group of stories that are sad, droll and unforgettable. They are sophisticated and intricate in their construction, yet appealing and accessible — a pleasure to read, never a chore. They show Earley at his best.
The collection begins with a group of stories linked by theme — and sometimes by overlapping characters and settings. They examine marriage and family, how people find each other, how they stay together and what, in the end, it’s all worth.
Set in rural North Carolina in the 1930s, the title story follows a 16-year-old bride named Plutina as she adjusts to isolation in her new home, to sudden adulthood and to a worrisome pregnancy. Her story is followed by “The Cryptozoologist,” which begins about 40 years later with another young bride, this one an 18-year-old college student named Rose. Seduced by her art professor, Rose gets whisked away to live on the rundown farm neighboring Plutina’s property.
“The Cryptozoologist,” like most of Earley’s best stories, seems to cover the whole lives of its characters. It moves around in time and benefits from Earley’s skill for choosing the right details and constructing compact histories. Of Rose, he writes, “By the time she realized that Fieldin had been a caricature when she met him, a by-the-book cutout of the lecherous college professor, they’d been married for years and his health was already beginning to fail.”
A novella of 70-plus pages anchors the book, and while crafted with imagination and invention, it doesn’t quite match the emotion and impact of the stories that precede it. It’s a lot of fun anyway.
“Jack and the Mad Dog” follows Jack, the giant slayer of fairy tales, as he flees the aforementioned dog and endures a crisis of purpose and conscience. Things seem to come to a head when the mad dog finally blocks Jack’s path and says, “Nobody tells stories anymore. The time of your kind has passed. Let’s get this over with.”
But Jack isn’t finished. He defeats the dog and advances into his uncertain future. His story — and Earley’s wonderful book — concludes with Jack speaking to “whoever might be listening,” urging them to let the story go on.
Nick Healy is the author of the story collection “It Takes You Over.” He lives in Mankato.