Tony Earley: “Jack and the Mad Dog” from The New Yorker, 10/1/12

New Yorker illustration by Martin Ansin

New Yorker illustration by Martin Ansin

Jack, that Jack, the giant-killer of the bean tree, spent the better part of the evening squatting in the blackberry briars opposite the house of a farmer’s wife who would – for four dollars, but with no particular enthusiasm – lean over her husband’s plow and let a boy have a go.

Well, what did you think fairy tale characters did when you closed the covers of their books and put them back on the shelf?

I wasn’t expecting much from this story. Tony Earley wrote my single least favorite Pushcart story, “Mr. Tall.” But I ended up smiling, nodding, laughing, and completely enchanted. And my head is still spinning from trying to dissect the literary theory and organize my thoughts coherently.

Aw, the hell with coherence, it’s one of those you-have-to-read-it-for-yourself stories anyway.

It’s part English fairy-tale, part bawdy Appalachian adaptation in folktale, part metafiction, part surrealistic psychological terror. After all, what would you do if you found yourself in a wheat field with all the many fifteen-year-old maidens you’d had your way with over the years, and couldn’t remember the name of any one of them?

Yeah, it’s not a kid’s fairy tale.

There is indeed a mad dog:

“So tell me,” Jack said, noting that the dog knew his name, “why are you impeding my progress across this here bridge?”
“Because that is my solitary calling.”
“Where’d you come from?”
“I don’t know. A minute ago I wasn’t here, but now I am.”
Jack nodded. “Limited omniscient narrator,” he said. “My point of view.”
“Don’t rub it in.”

And an equally ominous corn field:

… It became a congregation of angry Baptists – preachers and deacons and teetotalers, desiccated spinsters and disaffected, and dipped Methodists raffling with judgment and contempt as he fought through it.
Jack, the corn called in multitudinous chorus, you’re a fornicator and a murderer and thief!

And, of course, maidens. Lots of maidens, all appearing out of the wheat field that comes after the corn field. Because what would a tale be without maidens. And Jack, well: “He loved nothing more than maidens. He wondered wildly if it would be possible to herd all the girls into one place, like a pasture or a feedlot.”

No wonder the maidens are there to accuse him, particularly one pair of identical twins who double-team him:

“They’re not limpid pools of amber, Jack,” the first said.
“They’re light brown.”
“And they’re not shining or flashing or burning with passion.”
“They’re just eyes.”
Jack looked back and forth between their lovely faces with increasing consternation. Why couldn’t he remember them?
“It’s just as well you don’t recollect us.”
“We were fifteen, Jack. Fifteen.

Jack realized that he had never known any of their names. They had all been farmers’ daughters or millers’ daughters or kings’ daughters.
“Uh,” he said. “Susan?”
“No, Jack. None of us never got names.”
“The same way none of us never gotten more than the one dress to wear, and it too tight, not even after you saw to it that we needed a different color.”
“You never saw fit to ask our names.”
“Not even after you lay with us.”

It just so happens, Earley tapped into this thing I have about unnamed women, especially unnamed women in the Bible. There’s one in particular, Jephthah’s Daughter, and you won’t hear about her from the literal-intepretation crowd or the God-is-Love contingent. They’ll have all manner of ways to dance around it, but fact is, unlike Isaac, who as a young adult was bound for sacrifice and released, the Bible relates that Jepthah’s Daughter was in fact sacrificed as a burnt offering by her father – before she “knew a man” which makes her pre-pubertal. Some Jewish women observe a four-day remembrance of her, but otherwise, unlike Isaac, more like Jack, she’s forgotten, hidden away like a dirty secret. And she didn’t get a name, either. /end rant

The most tragic part of Jack’s tale, however, since his maidens are products of moonshine and loneliness, is related by the mad dog:

“For the last time I am Jack.”
“Which means nothing.”
“I’m important to people.”
“Not anymore. Not in any substantive way. The day is coming when your stories will be told only by faux mountaineers in new overalls to ill-informed tourists at storytelling festivals.”

The English Jack will be propagated by a movie in 2013 (what is it with Hollywood going through this fairy-tales-for-adults phase?).

But the Appalachian Jack? According to Tony Earley in his terrific Page-Turner interview, this Jack still has a giant and a tornado to deal with, before his cover is closed.

I’m glad for him.

One response to “Tony Earley: “Jack and the Mad Dog” from The New Yorker, 10/1/12

  1. Pingback: Paul Theroux: “The Furies” from TNY, 2/25/13 | A Just Recompense

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