Tony Earley is a born storyteller. Though you’d be hard pressed to pinpoint the exact moment in Mr. Tall that lets you know it, the proof is there, and it comes early.
Take “Haunted Castles of the Barrier Islands,” the collection’s first story, for example. “In October Darryl and Cheryl drove from Argyle, North Carolina, all the way to Wilmington, nearly eight hours, to surprise their daughter, Misti, who was a freshman at the university there, on her nineteenth birthday,” Earley begins. That ill-starred enterprise swiftly devolves into an existentially fraught coastal sightseeing trip for Darryl and Cheryl, sans Misti.
They go to look at a lighthouse:
Someday the ocean would threaten the spot where the lighthouse now stood. Eventually there would be no place left to move it to. They were all going to die and there was nothing they could do about it. Darryl edged back toward the door.
“Weather coming,” the ranger said.
“Tell me about it,” Darryl said.
They take a room at the charmingly depressing Wade-n-Sea:
“Find me a Hardee’s. Find me a room. Stay with me until I die. It was all the same thing, really,” he writes.
Earley is the author of the bestselling novel Jim the Boy and sequel The Blue Star. Mr. Tall is his second collection: six stories’ worth of peculiar North Carolinians peopling overlapping towns and times, plus one incongruous book-ending novella (that we’ll get to in a bit).
He was raised on tall tales told around a grandmother’s dining table, in the Appalachian tradition, with great vigor and verve. Would-be storytellers had to stay alert for the opportunity to ply their craft.
“It was hard to get the floor. You had to wait for somebody to inhale and then jump in and try to tell your story. Once you got the floor, you wanted to tell a good one, because then you could keep it,” says Earley, who’s now the Samuel Milton Fleming Professor of English at Vanderbilt University.
Compared to those rapid-fire roundtable, publishing takes a more leisurely pace. It’s been over two decades between Earley’s first short story collection, Here We Are in Paradise, and Mr. Tall. Perfectionism is a likely culprit.
“I’m way too much of a perfectionist for my own mental health,” says Earley, who labors long to fine tune each story. “It feels like I have a couple hundred marbles on top of a table that’s not quite level, and the marbles are kind of rolling around, and when I get all the marbles stopped, then I know that the story’s done. It’s just to the point where if I moved one more marble, it will be a mess all over again. For the last revision in Mr. Tall, I made a bunch of changes to ‘Jack and the Mad Dog,’ and then woke up the next morning and changed them all back.”
“Jack and the Mad Dog” is the wily novella that rounds out the book. While the preceding stories weave a quirky small-town tapestry in aggregate, “Jack” is a departure—a much taller tale that pulls the feckless giant-killer from stories of yore into a metafictional melee.
Earley cops to routinely condemning metafiction in his classes.
“That’s why you should just really keep your mouth shut in class, because you never know what’s going to come around and get you 10 years later,” he says. “Metafiction seemed to be the only way to write it. Jack had to know that he was a character in a story in order for it to work, and that’s automatically metafictional....One always hears about the death of the short story, the death of the book, and that’s what I was thinking about as I was writing this. What would it be like for a character who’s being pursued by this malign presence at the end of stories that’s set to finish all the characters off?”
Seeking the answer is liable to keep readers up past their bedtimes. For Earley, that’s the aim of an honest day’s work.
“If I could make somebody cry, or be tired at work" by keeping them up at night reading, "then I’ve done a good job,” he says.
Megan Labrise is a freelance writer and columnist based in New York. Follow her on Twitter.