Aspects of human frailty and damaged psyches permeate the stories in Mr. Tall, the latest collection of short fiction by Tony Earley. Earley's work (Jim the Boy and Here We Are in Paradise) delves into the lives of ordinary people and addresses complex themes in a pared-down style. This time around, Earley tackles stories about characters that include, in "Yard Art," a divorced 28-year-old midwife and a rough-around-the-edges, bluegrass-singing plumber who spend an afternoon searching for what may or may not be a valuable piece of sculpture. "Haunted Castles of the Barrier Islands" explores the relationship of a North Carolina couple forced to come to terms with the state of their marriage now that their daughter has left for college. Four taut scenes frame "Just Married," a beautiful story about a recently wed older couple that bears witness to the intersection of random events and memory. An isolated, elderly Nashville widow becomes rapt by the disappearance of a seventh grader in "Have You Seen the Stolen Girl?" The incident conjures remembrances of the widow's own child and Jesse James, who legend says once lived for a time at the woman's address. "The Cryptozoologist" centers on a widow who believes she has spied a "skunk ape," a type of Bigfoot creature, wandering outside her home. The presence of the wildly elusive beast compels her to reconcile her past and her true feelings for her misunderstood artist husband.
Elements of the surreal resurface in the novella, "Jack and the Mad Dog," a story about how a young man's misdeeds come back to bite him via a talking dog and a clever play on the Jack and the Beanstalk fable. And in "Mr. Tall," the most suspenseful story of the collection, a young woman living in the 1930s marries a man who whisks her away from her family into a new life filled with uncertainty. Amid loneliness, the young wife is drawn to a mysteriously widowed, reclusive neighbor nicknamed Mr. Tall, who inhabits the only other farmhouse nearby. The young wife is warned to stay away, but can she resist learning more about this man's past?
Earley's vivid, well-crafted short stories speak volumes about the startling realities of life and the complexities of human relationships. He deftly compresses whole life histories into just a few pages that successfully blend humor and poignancy, reality and myth. All of the stories feature Southeastern locales and characters who are ripped from the familiarity of their lives--the comfort, however good or bad, they know and depend upon--only to be thrust, oftentimes unwillingly, into new realities. Along the way, unearthed secrets and epiphanies lead to revelatory moments infused with regret and grace.
Mr.Tall by Tony Earley
Little, Brown and Company, $25.00 Hardcover, 9780316246125, 256 pp
Publication Date: August 26, 2014