“Well, since you’re so damn curious, let me tell you the secret to a long marriage,” writes Tony Earley in “Haunted Castles of the Barrier Islands,” the first story in his new collection, Mr. Tall. “If you want to stay together, then don’t leave.” This epiphany arrives courtesy of “a desiccated old woman with skin the color of nicotine”—one half of an elderly couple who own the Wade ‘n’ Sea, a deteriorating Outer Banks motel on the verge of being submerged in the Atlantic thanks to the erosion of the coastline. Afterwards, the other half of this odd couple—an invalid in a wheelchair—delivers his own insight: “Your car,” the old man says, “is shit.” This gem of a scene sums up much of what makes Mr. Tall such a small miracle of a story collection: pathos and insight juxtaposed with a moment of pure comic absurdity.
The broader context of “Haunted Castles” establishes the central theme of Mr. Tall: the perils of negotiating life’s second acts. Darryl and Cheryl, small-town newspaper publishers who have taken early retirement when their paper gets bought out by a conglomerate, arrive in Wilmington to surprise their daughter, a freshman at the university, on her birthday, getting their own surprise when they interrupt the girl in the midst of an afternoon rendezvous with “a scrawny wannabe surfer” in “temporarily indecent board shorts.” After a brief and awkward effort to engage their annoyed and aloof progeny, Darryl and Cheryl sulk away to the Outer Banks, where Cheryl hopes a chance to look at the ocean will soothe them through the troubling experience of discovering that their child is growing away from them. There they meet the elderly proprietors of the Wade ‘n’ Sea, whose very existence embodies the tension between risk and reward inherent in the passage of time.
Since the 1994 publication of his first collection, Here We Are in Paradise, Tony Earley has quietly earned a place among the most acclaimed and admired writers of his generation. While many of the usual suspects in the “this generation’s best” conversation tend toward formally and stylistically experimental novels or sprawling urban epics, Earley has rarely strayed from where he began: stories set in small Appalachian towns, concerning the hopes and dreams and triumphs and failures of the kind of characters that people from more glamorous places tend to think of as “common.” With the exception of the novella that closes Mr. Tall—a dryly comic metafictional fairy tale in which Earley essentially transforms Jack, “that Jack, the giant-killer of the stories,” into something akin to an ex-professional athlete struggling to come to terms with the passing of his glory days—all of these stories stick to the formula on which Earley’s reputation was built.
Some are set in Earley’s native North Carolina mountains, but, in addition to “Haunted Castles” and “Jack and the Mad Dog,” there are also a pair of stories set in contemporary Nashville. “Yard Art” depicts a recently divorced wife of a successful country songwriter who, thanks to a bumbling plumber and country “hat act” wannabe, makes her first tentative steps toward an identity apart from her famous husband. “Have You Seen the Stolen Girl” combines the classic elements of a child-abduction case and the history of the Jesse James home in East Nashville into a subtly Gothic tale of loneliness and longing.
The title story, “Mr. Tall,” is a similarly haunting tale set in Appalachia. In 1932, sixteen-year-old Plutina is uprooted by a hasty marriage to a man she barely knows and delivered to an isolated mountain home, where she spends long stretches alone while her husband is away at work. Earley’s narration of Plutina’s sexual awakening is raucously comic (“putting up the mule” joins the ranks of the more unusual sexual euphemisms on record), but the story turns dark when the lonely housewife grows curious about Mr. Tall, a neighboring hermit who has withdrawn from the world after the death of his wife and infant child. Plutina’s well-meaning but ill-advised tampering with Mr. Tall upends the conventional motif of the young innocent drawing the wounded and troubled soul out of his loneliness, and builds toward a disturbing conclusion.
Plutina reappears decades later in a smaller role in “The Cryptozoologist,” another mountain tale about a recently widowed artist who becomes fascinated with the “skunk ape”—a variation on the Bigfoot legend—and a domestic terrorist apparently inspired by Eric Rudolph, the Atlanta Olympic Park and abortion-clinic bomber who famously disappeared into the Appalachian wilderness and successfully eluded capture for five years, becoming a folk hero to some of the more extreme right-wing residents of the region. These stories—along with “Have You Seen the Stolen Girl?”—quite effectively convey what Tennessee Williams called “the underlying dreadfulness in modern experience.”
Earley is at his best when he stays in the real world, drawing the mythic and the universal out of the seemingly commonplace. Few writers can match his gift for nimbly deploying humor amidst humiliation, yearning, and even fright, nor can many infuse the lives of ostensibly plain people in quiet places with such resonance and gravity. Taken as a whole, Mr. Tall is a fine addition to a body of work which proves that even now, nearly a century after Faulkner began to transform his Oxford into Yoknapatawpha, a “postage stamp of native soil” is still the best canvas for the human story, particularly when painted by a master’s hand.
Ed Tarkington holds a B.A. from Furman University, an M.A. from the University of Virginia, and a Ph.D. from the creative-writing program at Florida State University. His debut novel, Only Love Can Break Your Heart, is forthcoming from Algonquin Books. He lives in Nashville.