Book: Jim the Boy

Jim the BoyJim the Boy
Tony Earley
2000 (Back Bay/Little Brown)

This is the story of Jim, a ten year old boy living on a North Carolina farm during the depression in a town that doesn’t appear to have been particularly hard hit by the depression with his mother and three uncles. His father died suddenly a week before he was born and it seriously messed with his mother’s head so that she never got over it. Jim doesn’t seem to feel any big loss at not having a father because he has three uncles constantly caring for him and his slightly crazy mother. The book has no real plot, it just meanders through the year between Jim’s tenth and eleventh birthdays, stopping when notable and not-so-notable things happen. Throughout the year Jim makes friends with a boy who lives on the mountain where his father grew up. They often seem to see each other as rivals, but when it comes down to it they are the best of friends. Several episodes in the book are their various experiences together.

The writing in this book is amazing. It flows wonderfully and reads aloud beautifully. The problem is that often it’s not saying much. Writing alone cannot make a solid book that holds my attention, and that’s what it felt like this book was trying to do. For the most part, almost nothing really happened. Each chapter was pretty much self-contained and often what happened in it was never mentioned afterwards. The best example of this was a very long, rambling chapter where one of the uncles took Jim to South Carolina to buy some horses. When the got there, the horses were dead and the man who was going to sell them had been arrested (he’d shot the horses so no one would steal them while he was in jail). So they drove to the ocean and stared at it for a few minutes and drove home. This episode was never mentioned again, but it was the longest single chapter in the entire book and a whole section by itself. Why was this important? I have no earthly idea. So while I liked the writing, and stories the uncles told from their memories tended to be really amusing and interesting, the actual story in the book was not terribly engaging. And whenever it started to be interesting, the thread of plot was dropped and forgotten and the story moved on to something entirely different. I also felt like the characters didn’t get as much depth as I would have liked, even Jim. They all seemed somehow very flat to me, especially Jim’s mother. For as much face time as these characters got, I should have had a better sense of who they were as people, but I didn’t. None of them particularly stood out to me as being a strong character in any real way.

I’m just not sure what held this book together since it lacked plot and it lacked characters of note. I think this book, for me anyway, was really kind of forgettable. That makes me a little sad, since the writing was so good. I felt like this wasn’t an author who should be writing novels, though. This was a terrible novel, but it might have been a decent collection of short stories with a few modifications. I would love to read short stories by Earley, which I think he’d be brilliant at writing, but I doubt I’ll ever pick up a novel by him again. And as to the “all-age” appropriateness of this book I was promised, that didn’t pan out either. I can’t imagine a kid who’d get (or even sit all the way through) this book. Sorry, this was solidly an adult book, and not even one I’d recommend.

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