Mr. Tall: Stories, by Tony Earley
Publisher: Little, Brown & Company
224 pages, eBook
Published 26th August 2014
“Haunted Castles of the Barrier Islands”
“Have You Seen the Stolen Girl?”
“Jack and the Mad Dog”
Like Margaret Atwood’s recent Stone Mattress, this wonderful collection of novellas could easily be described as a selection of “tales”. With a confident style and unadorned dialogue, Earley effectively combines literary exploration of the marriage relationship with aspects of the Southern American folk tale. The stories range from the conventional side of the spectrum to the wild, fantastical side that would be at home in a genre anthology.
“Just Married”, a set of character relationship portraits, and “Haunted Castles of the Barrier Islands” fall toward the conventional side. “Haunted Castles…” is a particularly strong opening to the collection, showcasing Earley’s talent at writing two characters dealing with life/relationship shifts. In this case concerning a wife and husband visiting a daughter now off at college, leaving the couple together in the isolation of a struggling relationship that contrasts the scenic, natural romanticism of the barrier islands they drive past on the way home. “Jack and the Mad Dog” falls at the other end with a clever play on a classic fairy-tale told with a meta fictional twist.
Earley’s most powerful tales fall in the middle of the spectrum. “The Cryptozoologist” and the best novella in the collection, “Mr Tall”, are special because they clearly combine the struggles of relationship at the crux of the protagonist’s being with the fantastic or symbolic elements of a folk tale. In “The Cryptozoologist” the loss of a spouse and the yearning to again feel the beauty of marriage and love becomes tied in time and place to a fleeting glimpse of a mythological creature and the burning desire to recapture a glimpse at its unique wonder.
“Mr Tall” fittingly gives this collection name. It conjures thoughts of the “tall tale”, and although the collection as a whole doesn’t really fit this form of folk tale, “Mr Tall” presents itself as a crafty twitching of the tall tale hallmarks. The historical story involves a young, naive, newly married woman whose devoted, but hard-working husband warns her not to visit their reclusive and seemingly dangerous neighbor, or approach his land. With certain unfulfilled feelings, general curiosity, and the boredom associated with being young and childless in the era, the wife ventures out exploring to learn more of this mysterious neighbor nicknamed Mr. Tall. Exaggeration is subtly present in the town mythology surrounding Mr. Tall. And the wife is filled with a light-hearted optimism that one can find in a tall tale. Yet this tale is grounded in reality that is not entirely pleasant, and the story serves to illustrate the maturing of the protagonist from blissful naiveté to greater caution and fear. “Mr Tall” is a tremendous story with richly developed characters who show genuine aspects of humanity both positive and negative.
I haven’t read Tony Earley’s first collection, but it is going on my list of things to gladly read. I enjoy this kind of mixture of literary with genre, and it is particularly rare to see it done with the American folktale in my experience at least as a reader. I also need to reread “Jack and the Mad Dog”, for I fear I missed too much the first time, not ready for its unconventionality, and I think additional insights into the other novellas could come from rereading, a testament to the quality of this collection.
Disclaimer: I received a free electronic reading copy of this from the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.