Pushcart 2011: Tony Earley, “Mr. Tall” from The Southern Review Spring 2009

Southern Review Cover Art by Tanja Softiç

Because Dillsboro lay on a riverbank in a wide, fertile valley, the mountains Plutina had grown up knowing stood politely some distance away from where she had viewed them. These new peaks, however, pressed in on her like rude strangers.

I’m afraid I missed the point of this story. Oh, I get that it’s about Depression-era Appalachia and intimacy and closeness and how loneliness changes the perception of distance. But I felt like it ended in the middle, leaving me with a lot of loose ends and the question, “So, what happened then?”

The story follows Plutina, who at sixteen marries Charlie. She leaves behind her father and older sister Henrietta who will now have to care for their stroke-disabled mother by themselves. They aren’t too happy about that; Henrietta doesn’t even attend the brief wedding in the house. But these people disappear from the story and aren’t heard from again. It seems odd to create such an interesting setup, complete with this teaser –

Plutina’s thoughtless relegation of Henrietta to a life of servitude (Henrietta’s view) and Henrietta’s unforgivably bad manners on the happiest day of Plutina’s life (Plutina’s version) provided yeast for the grievances and recriminations and snits that would intermittently bubble up between the sisters for the better part of the next seventy years.

– and then just abandon it.

But the remainder of the story focuses on Plutina’s life exclusively. Charlie takes her to his house some distance away, in the mountains that crowd her so rudely. Then he takes a job in another town, meaning he leaves on Monday and returns Friday. She tends the farm in the meantime, deals with her fears, tells herself stories out loud, and lives with loneliness, occasionally wondering about the elusive “Mr. Tall” who is her only neighbor about a mile away. She’s never seen him, or his farm. All she knows about him is that he lost his wife and baby in an accident, and that he makes apple brandy (which would still be illegal in 1931). She makes up an entire world for him, complete with dark images and dangerous signs.

A couple of years later, she becomes pregnant; she keeps it a secret from Charlie for a while. It strikes me as odd that it takes so long for her to become pregnant, and that neither she nor Charlie voice any concerns. Or, for that matter, relief, because she doesn’t seem all that thrilled about her pregnancy. She seeks out Mr. Tall’s farm, which turns out not to be dark and dangerous as she’d imagined but quite lovely and well-kept. Intrigued, and lonely, and scared, she eventually meets him, resulting in a moderately dramatic approach-avoidance conflict for both of them. Their loneliness overcomes their fear. She acts like a child playing hide-and-seek, and he’s disturbed to see her, as any good hermit would be, but he treats her rather kindly if stiffly once he determines she’s not trying to steal from him. They seem to be heading towards coexisting as friendly neighbors, but she oversteps by commenting on his dead wife and child. He lashes out quite nastily, accusing her of sexual motivations and wishing her baby dead, and leaves. She is sad.

End of story. Like I said, it left me with loose ends. The climax isn’t that climactic; her family is still dangling from the first paragraphs; and she’s still pregnant. I get the dance of intimacy vs loneliness, in this case just neighborliness vs serious isolation. And as vicious as it is, I get his reaction to her kindly-intentioned mention of his family tragedy; it might be necessary to pick at a wound to get it to heal, but it’s painful, and apparently he isn’t up to it, at least not then or with her. But it’s too brief a scene to have that much impact on me. It’s almost like this is a chapter from a book, with this disruption in their relationship being an early chapter, but I can’t find anything to indicate that.

I’m not sure why it’s Pushcart-worthy. The few raves I’ve found have been non-specific: it’s true to the time and place, it’s a detailed character portrayal, and that’s all true, but still, doesn’t it have to go somewhere? And I can’t overlook the possibility that I just wasn’t interested. The whole “Southern literature” thing usually goes by me; it’s a flavor I can’t really taste. If someone can fill me on on the merits, I’d be happy to learn something.

3 responses to “Pushcart 2011: Tony Earley, “Mr. Tall” from The Southern Review Spring 2009

  1. Pingback: Pushcart XXXV (2011): Final Thoughts « A Just Recompense

  2. Pingback: Tony Earley: “Jack and the Mad Dog” from The New Yorker, 10/1/12 | A Just Recompense

  3. Pingback: Pushcart 2013: Jeanne Shoemaker, “Sonny Criss” from The Iowa Review, Fall 2011 | A Just Recompense

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