Life in Anywhere, U.S.A.
The Blue Star by Tony Earley
Review by John Freeman
The Blue Star
Little, Brown and Company
The worst thing about sequels is how so many borrow upon the brilliance of what came before without repaying the debt. So let me get this out of the way: Tony Earley’s new novel, The Blue Star, is a very fine book, full of moments of humor and tenderness, prose so glassine you almost forget it is there. But it is a very different novel from Jim the Boy, Earley’s 2001 novel about a 9-year-old growing up in the ’30s in the shade of three kindly uncles, his widowed mother and the hills of North Carolina.
The Blue Star takes place seven years later, when Jim is on the cusp of adulthood. The dome of protection that not-knowingness places upon happy children has long since been shattered, and so Jim must—and does—see the world Earley lovingly painted in the first book through entirely different eyes. It is a very difficult burden to be placed on a sequel. Everything is carried, and nothing at all. By writing The Blue Star, Earley has forced himself to introduce us to Aliceville, N.C., and its residents all over again.
For this reason, if you haven’t read Jim the Boy, The Blue Star will make perfect sense, start to finish. Here is a small, North Carolina town bumping up against America’s involvement in World War II. Jim Glass, the book’s 17-year-old hero, hasn’t given much thought to what’s about to come. He is busy being a high school senior, fishtailing his V-8 Ford around mountain roads, pining for a few moments alone with Chrissie Steppe, a beautiful half-Cherokee girl who is dating a boy who just left for war.
The simplicity of Earley’s prose and the " Happy Days" contours of his story should not be mistaken for some kind of retrograde nostalgia. Aliceville is riven by secrets, class divisions, the legacy of slavery and the restless boredom of the Friday night drunk—all of which Earley places carefully into view. Chrissie’s father, "Injun Joe," has run off, and Jim’s three bachelor uncles, nice as they are, worry the apple doesn’t fall too far from the tree. With all the unthinking cruelty of your typical teenager, Jim calls the mill-working kids “lintheads” and has almost no curiosity of the world outside Aliceville.
But as much as the place feels like a character, Earley doesn’t belabor it, choosing instead to follow, scene to scene, his characters with a sensitivity and care that is tremendously rare in today’s novelists. He has total mastery of what the critic James Wood has called “free indirect style,” meaning he narrates in the third person, altering his prose and point of view ever so slightly to give the appearance of being inside the heads of one character or the next. When Jim falls for Chrissie, Earley shows us just how bad with the tiniest adjustment in his descriptions.
In this fashion, The Blue Star tells an enormous, emotional story about a boy turning into a man through his own foolish love, without ever falling prey to a teenager’s myopic narcissism. In a few wonderful scenes—as Jim drives up and down the mountain to Chrissie’s and what he slowly realizes is the wrong side of town—the lovely, mysterious Carolina woods around him rise up out of Earley’s prose in description, as if calling to Jim to notice.
But Jim’s heart, or what his mind thinks of as his heart, is turned somewhere else—focused with a new love’s singular, agitated purpose on one thing and one thing only. Earley is so good at describing this fidgety need in third person, it is sometimes a shock when the characters speak, occasionally far too articulately to be believed. “If I lived somewhere else,” Chrissie says at one point, “and had some different kind of life, I could lay around all day on my pretty bed and think about which boy I loved and which boy I didn’t and then I’d dress up all pretty and write about it in my diary.”
These snippets of dialogue don’t happen too often, but often enough to form a small blemish on an otherwise terrifically realized book. In such moments, the quietude and restraint of Earley’s third-person narration—which isn’t much different than Flannery O’Connor’s or Mark Twain’s—explains itself. Our talky age, and the talky narrative devices our novels rely on like crutches, tell us so very little about how we live on the inside, whether it’s in imagined Aliceville or Anywhere, U.S.A. And for that reason, The Blue Star is, in more ways than one, a wonderful reminder of how we used to live.
John Freeman is president of the National Critics Circle.