March’s Too Busy for Books: Earley

March’s Too Busy for Books: Earley

Disappointed in more ways than he could count, drunk but not pleasantly so, both legs asleep up to his hipbones, Jack climbed from the briars and set out…

The Too Busy for Books Book Club meets monthly at the Pennington Public Library to discuss a short novel or novella (120 pages or shorter). This month we read “Jack and the Mad Dog” by Tony Earley, from his collection Mr. Tall.

Earley is in his fifties and currently teaches at Vanderbilt University. He sets most his stories in North Carolina. He is like a few other contemporary Americans we have read in the book club (Antonya Nelson {“Some Fun”} and George Saunders {“Pastoralia”}) in his compassion and humor, his ability to sketch a quick and convincing portrait, and his preference for writing short fiction. It’s perhaps worth mentioning that these three also share certain sympathies for the laboring class as well as desperate concerns about the future.

Earley concocted his novella “Jack and the Mad Dog” from the characters and plot devices of the Jack tales, which were once a mainstay of the Appalachian oral tradition. In these folktales as once they were spoken, Jack fights giants, witches, and unicorns. In Earley’s version, Jack fights his own obsolescence. The storytelling tradition of the regional mountain folk that birthed him is dead, and as the novella opens, it’s clear Jack isn’t doing too well himself. Things then worsen. Soon Jack is fleeing apocalyptic floods, monstrous storms, and a talking dog that intends to kill him because he has “lost cultural currency.”

Earley’s confident way around Appalachian dialect, his hilarious imagination, and his sturdy-as-shit sentences make “Jack and the Mad Dog” much more than just a tribute to a lost oral tradition or a provocative experiment with the fourth wall. Earley understands heavily-plotted suspense and sorrow, when to get out of the way of the story and when to wade in with eye-catching alliterations and self-conscious asides.

It’s a novella that reminds me of both Mark Twain and Italo Calvino.

Next month the Too Busy for Books Book Club reads “Ballad of a Sad Cafe” by Carson McCullers.

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