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Jim Glass has fallen in love with Chrissie Steppe. Sadly, Chrissie is Bucky's girlfriend, and Bucky has joined the Navy on the eve of war. Jim vows to win Chrissie's heart, but the war makes gives a young man's emotions a grown man's gravity.
Tony Earley made his debut with Here We Are in Paradise, a superbly understated collection of (mostly) small-town vignettes. He returns to the same terrain in his first novel, Jim the Boy, setting this coming-of-age story in a remote North Carolina hamlet. The year is 1934, and like the rest of the country, Aliceville is feeling the pinch of the Great Depression. Yet neither Jim nor his mother nor his three uncles--who have split the paternal role neatly among themselves since the death of Jim's father a decade earlier--are feeling much in the way of economic pain. Indeed, if you stuck a satellite dish on the front lawn, the story might be taking place in the New South rather than the older, bucolic one.This isn't to suggest that Earley is deaf to social detail. Indeed, there are all sorts of wonderful touches, like the decor in Jim's classroom,with its "large, colorful maps of the United States, the Confederacy, and the Holy Land during the time of Jesus." But Jim the Boy is very much the tale of a 10-year-old's expanding consciousness, which at first barely extends beyond the family property. Earley has a real gift for conveying childhood epiphanies, like Jim's sudden apprehension of the wider world during a trip in Uncle Al's truck: "Two thoughts came to Jim at once, joined by a thread of amazement: he thought, People live here, and he thought, They don't know who I am. At that moment the world opened up around Jim like hands that, until that moment, had been cupped around him; he felt very small, almost invisible, in the open air of their center, but knew that the hands would not let him go. It was almost like flying." The simple lyricism and anti-ironic sweetness work mostly to the book's advantage. There are times, it's true, when Earley sands his prose down to an unnatural smoothness, and we seem to be edging toward the sentimental precincts of a young-adult novel. But on the whole, Jim the Boy is a lovely, meticulous work--a song of innocence and (eventually) experience, delivered with just a hint of a North Carolina accent. --James Marcus
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