Over several decades, in small towns scattered throughout North Carolina and Tennessee, young and old couples attempt to connect in Earley’s (The Blue Star, 2008, etc.) quirky and penetrating story collection.
In “Haunted Castles of the Barrier Isles,” a long-married couple is bereft when their only child, a college freshman, is less than happy to see them during a surprise birthday visit. With nothing better to do, the couple embarks on a trip to the nearby barrier islands, where they wander into a lackluster beach resort soon to be swallowed up by the encroaching ocean. This desultory vacation is colored by the shock and disappointment of the college visit, and their resulting marital crisis is described with mastery and subtlety. In "Mr. Tall," 16-year-old newlywed Plutina Scroggs sets off in 1932 with her new husband on a seemingly endless rail and mule journey from her hometown to his remote mountain cottage. Earley conveys with genuine humor and insight Plutina’s bewilderment about sex and her initial regrets about the hasty marriage. Plutina later becomes obsessed with her never-glimpsed nearest neighbor, a hermit known as Mr. Tall, during the long weeks she spends alone. These first two stories are the strongest and most memorable of the collection. Additional tales are linked through the use of repeating characters; Plutina reappears as an aging neighbor in “The Cryptozoologist,” in which a new widow becomes infatuated with the yetilike “skunk apes” she glimpses in the woods behind her home. In “Just Married,” a collection of shorter anecdotes, characters appear and cleverly reappear in different phases of their lives with different partners. The only misstep in the book is the novella "Jack and the Mad Dog," a well-crafted but tedious postmodern fable about “THAT Jack, the giant-killer of the stories,” that is out of keeping with the rest of the collection.
The rest of the book is punctuated by sharp insights and wry observations on the human condition, featuring strong, idiosyncratic characters having small epiphanies in their small towns.