Earley crafts an elegant reinvention of the past The line between fiction and nonfiction is often blurred and in most cases arbitrarily drawn. In his new book, Somehow Form a Family, a collection of essays that reads like the cohering fragments of a memoir, Tony Earley walks gracefully along that line, writing about growing up in the South in the 1970s, the eccentricities of love in most families, and the essential longing to connect with a community that any writer feels but is rarely able to satisfy. "All writers are spies in their own country," Earley said in a recent phone interview. "We are afflicted or blessed with this strange sort of consciousness in which we are always looking in from the outside. I can remember being a kid walking through the playground, imagining myself as I did it, conscious of my every move, always feeling different and never comfortable in any group. Perhaps that's why we become writers, to deal with that longing."Earley, a North Carolina native and an associate professor of English at Vanderbilt University, is the author of the 1994 short story collection Here We Are in Paradise and the highly acclaimed novel Jim the Boy, published in 2000. A few years back Granta magazine named him one of America's best young authors, and shortly after that announcement, The New Yorker featured him in an issue that focused on the best new fiction writers in America. The last three stories in Here We Are in Paradise depicted Jim Glass and his family. From those stories, Earley developed the idea for the novel Jim the Boy, a work whose style has been compared to both Ernest Hemingway's and E. B. White's. Being compared to Hemingway would not come as an unwanted surprise to most young contemporary fiction writers, but a comparison to E. B. White, in our deconstructed new world where any writer worth his ink seems destined to have a distant, ironic voice, may not seem a compliment. Earley, though, is happy with the comparison and thinks he understands its source. "I started it," he said. "It's flattering, but the comparisons probably came from my epigraph to the novel from White's Charlotte's Web Ã”I love it here in the barn,' said Wilbur. Ã”I love everything about this place.'"But critics and readers didn't have to strain to see the relationship between White and Earley. Both are stylists who seem unhurried and sure, capable of a complex poetry composed of simple sentences. Like White, Earley has a talent that seems lost to so many contemporary writers: the ability to speak straightforwardly, expressing an honest, deep-felt emotion, without ever lapsing into sentimentality. The world can be approached, it seems, without one eye cocked ironically. Earley's intention in Jim the Boy was to work in the conventions of the classic children's book and transform it into a contemporary novel. "My wife read Charlotte's Web to me when we were first married," he said. "She was appalled that I made it through my youth without reading it, and she was determined to correct that deficiency. I decided that I wanted to write two stories simultaneously, a simple surface story and a more complicated shadow story. The whole process made me nervous, of course. I was in a panic for a time, thinking people would read it and say, Ã”there's nothing there.'"That's not what people said, certainly. Readers and critics alike felt that the novel was sincere and compassionate, a unique story with delicate implications and a simple beauty. Readers will likely have the same response to Somehow Form a Family. (The title of the book comes from a line in The Brady Bunch theme song.) In this collection of nonfiction pieces, Earley manages to write with a simplicity and honesty that resonate long after the reader finishes the book. From the stuff of actual experience and observed reality, Earley crafts lasting narratives. He understands that there is an important common ground shared by fiction and nonfiction. "Memory and imagination," he writes, "seem to me the same human property, known by different names. Clark Kent and Superman are, after all, the same muscular guy; the only difference between them lies in how they are packaged and perceived . . . At its heart this book is a collection of stories . . . mostly true because memory, like imagination, is largely a function of individual perception." It's an American tradition, Earley realizes, to make ourselves up as we go along. "Rewriting oneself on the fly," he says in the book, "seems to me a basic human and particularly American avocation." Somehow Form a Family is about just that the reinvention of the past. In the process of re-imagining his own past, Earley recounts with spare elegance everything from clinical depression and suicidal impulses to the accidental death of his teenage sister when he was 18 years old. Along with great sadness, there are moments of perfect-pitch humor in this collection of memories a great grandfather who builds a new house and then places his bed in the hallway, sleeping there for the next 30 years, or an anecdote about an attempt to shoot the sick family cat which has some dialogue in it that is as funny as the cliff scene in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. In each of the stories Earley has to tell in Somehow Form a Family, he has a surgical precision, a way of reaching into the tale and extracting a moment of wisdom. "Shooting a Cat," for instance, ends with Earley's father getting up in the morning and without any fanfare killing the cat. "I am neither pragmatic nor decisive nor lucky enough to tell a story like that," Earley writes. "My parents came from a South where spending good money on a dying cat would be considered a great foolishness, if not an outright sin. For better or worse, I grew up in another South entirely. In the South I know the cat is still in the poison oak. I am supposed to do something, but I'm not sure what. I go around telling anyone who will listen that I am from the country, but deep down I know it's a lie. I grew up on Gilligan's Island, in Mayberry, I'm not sure where. My family is from the country. They are waiting on the porch to see what I will do." Tony Earley, once that young boy who roamed the playground feeling cut off from any group around him, has found a family, in a sense. He has found it in stories, by connecting himself with a circle of readers, by making his experience represent ours, and like the rest of his family, we'll sit here waiting to see what he'll do next. Surely, it will be something like this collection of pure-voiced essays that will demand our attention.
Michael Pearson directs the creative writing program at Old Dominion University.