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.

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.