Friday, May 11, 2007

When I was just a lad

Jim the Boy by Tony Earley is a brief, lyrical look at growing up in a Depression era North Carolina town. Each chapter shows Jim learning how to make friends, dealing with fights, understanding his family and the people around him. In other words, the pedestrian things that make up growing up. Earley does a good job of showing how adolescents wrestle with learning to see thing other people's way and dealing with shame.

As to the shame, it is quite basic. He feels he let down his uncles by not working effectively enough on his first day in the fields. Most writers would have him tormented/conflicted sexually. Walter Kirn in the NYT notes that " his year-in-the-life story of a rural boyhood unmarked by parental abuse, erotic turmoil or domestic dysfunction seems strangely brave and new." How many books/movies about country people involve some terrible event in the past that haunts them to this day? Part of this is the urban disdain of the rural I suspect. On a similar note, Earley doesn't talk down to his characters. Rural people are often shown as stupid or with exaggerated accents. Here they are treated fairly.

Kirn also points out that the novel makes use of the magical negro, in the form of a farm hand named Abraham. It's not an egregious case, but it falls a little flat. Abraham speaks words of wisdom and actually gets Jim out of a tight scrape at one point. Its not a fatal flaw, as he remains a tertiary character.

By making the story basic and simple, Earley has made it real. Most people will be able to recall their own first encounters with friends, the first toys that really mattered to them, when they started understanding their parents and relatives as people rather than as icons.

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