The worst thing about sequels is how so many borrow upon the brilliance of what came before without repaying the debt. So let me get this out of the way. Tony Earley’s new novel, “The Blue Star, ” is a very fine book, full of moments of humor and tenderness, prose so glassine you almost forget it is there. But it is a very different novel to “Jim the Boy,” Earley’s 2001 novel about a 9-year-old growing up in 1930s in the shade of three kindly uncles, his widowed mother and the hills of North Carolina.
“The Blue Star” takes place seven years later, when Jim is on the cusp of adulthood. The dome of protection which not-knowingness places upon happy children has long since been shattered, and so Jim must, and does, see the world Earley lovingly painted in the first book through entirely different eyes. It is a very difficult burden to be placed on a sequel. Everything is carried, and nothing at all. By writing “The Blue Star,” Earley has forced himself to introduce us to Aliceville, North Carolina and its residents all over again.
For this reason, if you haven’t read “Jim the Boy,” “The Blue Star” will make perfect sense, start to finish. Here is a small, North Carolina town, bumping up against America’s involvement in World War II. Jim Glass, the book’s 17-year-old hero, hasn’t given much thought to what’s about to come. He is busy being a high school senior, fishtailing his V-8 Ford around the mountain roads, pining for a few moments alone with Christine Steppe, a beautiful, half-Cherokee girl who is dating a boy who just left for war.
The simplicity of Earley’s prose and the “Happy Days” contours of his story should not be mistaken for some kind of retrograde nostalgia. Aliceville is riven by secrets, class divisions, the legacy of slavery and the restless boredom of the Friday-night drunk—all of which Earley places carefully into view. Christine’s father, “Injun Joe,” has run off, and Jim’s three bachelor uncles, nice as they are, worry the apple doesn’t fall too far from the tree. With all the unthinking cruelty of your typical teenager, Jim calls the mill working kids “lintheads,” and has almost no curiosity for the world outside Aliceville.
But as much as the place feels like a character, Earley doesn’t belabor it, choosing instead to follow, scene to scene, his characters with a sensitivity and care which is tremendously rare in today’s novelists. He has total mastery of what the critic James Wood has called “free indirect style,” meaning he narrates in the third person, altering his prose and point of view ever so slightly to give the appearance of being inside the heads of one character or the next. When Jim falls for Christine, Earley can show us just how bad with the tiniest adjustment in his descriptions.
In this fashion, “The Blue Star” tells an enormous, emotional story in about a boy turning to a man through his own foolish love, without ever falling prey to a teenager’s myopic narcissism. (John Freeman)
“The Blue Star”
By Tony Earley
Little, Brown, $23.99, 286 pages