Nabokov said it best, in “Lolita”: “You can always count on a murderer for a fancy prose style.” The use of a quiet tone, along with eloquence of language, to address that which is splintered, or thorny, or otherwise difficult to process, is a practice of long literary standing. In poetry, too, meter can be used to accentuate the parts of a work that are the most difficult to understand or, in some cases, closest to the writer’s thoughts. In the case of “Mr. Tall,” Tony Earley’s first book in several years, the author shows worlds divided, upended, and in some cases completely broken apart. And yet the stories never lose their unearthly grace and calm.
Some of the tales overlap; the young couple of one story may be the elderly neighbors in another. This connection aside, the homes and relationships here are built and then torn asunder from the inside.
In the collection’s first story, “Haunted Couples of the Barrier Islands,” a couple has a fairly dysfunctional visit with their daughter in college and then take off for the beach, where the melancholy of a long marriage, along with a storm, puts the couple through painful paces. Comfortable as they are in each other’s presence, readers know their comfort is not necessarily to be taken for granted — because Earley lays it all out for us with the precision and deliberation of a detail-oriented dentist with no fondness for novocaine. When characters attempt to correct the courses of their lives, they ultimately expose the damage in those lives to a devastating degree. In the book’s haunting title story, Clorinda is often left at home because her husband is away working with a road crew. When she attempts to befriend an antisocial, Boo-Radleian neighbor nicknamed Mr. Tall, their exchange begins awkwardly and progresses into worse territory, until finally the witheringly sad reason behind the man’s solitude is revealed.
The stories in the book have in common a tremendous command of the places in which they are set, and the voices of the people who populate them. What animates the book as a whole, though, is its frequent reaches into surrealism, often buttressed by lyrical language that stops short of being sentimental.
The novella that completes the volume, “Jack and the Mad Dog,” could be reminiscent of Robert Coover or Steven Millhauser at his more whimsical. At the beginning of the story, we meet Jack the giant-killer, about to be chased off the farm of a man whose wife he hopes to sleep with. Once he runs away, he has many bittersweet adventures, including an attack by all of the girls he has loved and left, who charge after him in a grand manner. He eventually meets Tom Dooley, of the folk song “Hang Down Your Head, Tom Dooley,” and the rest is history — or rather an exuberant, kaleidoscopic blend of verses from songs, snippets of fairy tales, and storytelling clichés, ending up in a familiar place. (Hint: It involves going down a hill, and fetching a bucket of water, but in post-modernized terms.)
Earley pulls narrative stunts elsewhere, too, as in “Have You Seen the Missing Girl?,” in which a woman discovers Jesse James has come back from the 19th century and is holding a missing child hostage in her basement — or in “The Cryptozoologist,” in which a woman sees a skunk ape in her backyard, possibly a stand-in for her deceased husband.
Earley’s poetic sentences empower his stories, making them more poignant, more real, as when Jesse James’s laugh causes a suburban woman to imagine “a mouth filled with cobwebs,” or when, beset by a horrible flood, Jack the giant-killer’s “brain began to shout the thoughts inside his head so that he might hear them.” This collection reminds us that imaginative leaps may at times take readers away from what they call reality, but may just as easily bring us closer to it.