Jim the man learns of love, loss

Perhaps one of the biggest challenges for the contemporary novelist is to tell a story without relying on edgy self-consciousness, postmodern narrative gymnastics, or the cool, hip irony that's become nearly a parody of itself. Who consistently rises to this challenge? Tony Earley, author of the short story collection "Here We Are in Paradise"; the best-selling novel "Jim the Boy"; and the remarkable essay collection "Somehow Form a Family."

In Earley's second novel, "The Blue Star," Jim Glass, arguably one of recent fiction's most endearing protagonists, is no longer a boy. He is a high school senior who "could sense the end of these good days rapidly approaching, like a mail train filled with unexpected news." This novel is set in 1941, on the eve of World War II. Already, Bucky Bucklaw -- Jim's former classmate, baseball teammate and sometime friend -- has enlisted in the Navy. Each day, trainloads of soldiers pass through Jim's hometown, Aliceville, N.C., and as he catches glimpses of them, Jim "wondered where they were going." Without saying as much, it's clear that Jim also wonders whether he will soon be one of those soldiers.

But the impending war is not foremost in Jim's thoughts on his first Indian summer day of senior year. His mind and eyes are on Chrissie Steppe, the beautiful half-Cherokee girl who is bused to school from Lynn Mountain. And, of course, as happens with any good love story, there are complications. Chrissie and her mother, Nancy, live on the Bucklaw property. They are poor and grateful to the Bucklaws for taking them in after Chrissie's criminal father "Injun Joe" disappears and her grandfather loses his arm at the sawmill, but poverty and gratitude have rendered both Chrissie and her mother little more than Bucklaw property. Chrissie is resignedly engaged to Bucky Bucklaw, making her off-limits to Jim. In a spur-of-the-moment letter, Bucklaw warns Jim: "Don't forget that I'm not dead I'm just in the Navy!"

But the determined and sensitive Jim is in thrall to his heart's command, which is to win the affection of Chrissie Steppe despite what his mother says about her only being "half white," despite the warnings from his friend Dennis Deane and Jim's Uncle Zeno, who has been keeping a family secret that involves the Steppe family. Before the novel ends, though, Jim Glass will surprise himself with his daring, confront the depth of his dislike for Bucky Bucklaw and its consequences, and will learn that the journey from adolescence to manhood is pocked with as much loss as it is self-discovery.

I was charmed initially by the people and places Earley evokes with guileless ease. For instance, an afternoon in Miss Brown's history class grows "hot and still, the air rapidly thickening with the smell of teenagers ripening against their will in the heat." And Jim thinks "the colors of the spectrum flared in Chrissie's hair with the hopeful radiance of undiscovered stars." Charmed was quickly surpassed by awe because what Earley achieves in "The Blue Star" is nothing short of wonderful.

Each scene is richly rendered with sensory detail. Even the novel's darkest moments are forecast with supreme care: "Though the tops of the trees still glowed in the flat, winter sunlight, the rock on which they sat lay completely in shadow." Earley paints the portentous moments -- a shift in light, a change in the landscape, a sudden shiver in the cold -- much as we experience these moments in real life.

More impressive is the clarity and deceptive simplicity with which Earley depicts complicated desires. "I think we ought to be able to love whoever we want to, even if it's not a good idea," Chrissie tells Jim. When Jim insists that Chrissie has a "choice" with regard to Bucky, her response "that people with money can just about do anything they want to people who don't have money" reflects a belief that sounds eerily current. In fact, the beauty and intelligence of "The Blue Star" lies with Earley's uncanny ability to create a portrait of an earlier America without lapsing into a false sense of nostalgia. Through Jim Glass, Earley holds a mirror up to our attitudes about love, family, race, money, poverty, war and small-town life that transcend time and place. Jim Glass' struggles, longings and triumphs may take place in a bygone American era, yet as Earley writes it, a bit of Jim Glass lives in each of us.

With the publication of "Jim the Boy," Granta named Earley one of "the Best of The Young American Novelists" and The New Yorker anointed him one of the "20 best young fiction writers in America." Often such praise proves more hopeful than accurate. "The Blue Star" confirms that the praise is spot on.