The fictional town of Aliceville, N.C., is located somewhere between Mayberry and Walton's Mountain. Aliceville is the setting for Tony Earley's novel "The Blue Star," as it was for that story's predecessor, "Jim the Boy." Jim was a small boy in that first book, and now he is 17 and a high school senior in the fall of 1941. Aliceville hasn't changed much in the time between the two books. It is still a sleepy little farm town in the foothills, largely populated by folks so wise and kind that you want to rush there and get adopted. It is not a fairy-tale town. It has its share of bigots and bullies and gossips. Bad things do happen. A 14-year-old girl gets pregnant. A boy just out of high school gets killed at Pearl Harbor, and his parents go nearly crazy with grief. Mostly, though, Aliceville is a place where good manners matter, good sense prevails, decent people do the right thing, even if it takes a while for them to get it right, and people learn from their mistakes. But the real miracle of Aliceville is not that a writer as shrewd as Earley would try to sell us something so wholesome. The miracle is how well he succeeds.
Jim Glass proves a durable hero. He hasn't gotten a lot more sophisticated since "Jim the Boy," so little in fact that you wonder how he spent the time between preschool and senior year. He's blind to social distinctions and so clueless about racism that he doesn't understand why anyone would hate Indians. This matters a lot when he falls in love with Chrissie Steppe, a half-Indian girl in his senior class. Like his friends, he doesn't drink or smoke or cuss, and he respects his elders. If he offends anyone, it's inadvertent, and he always tries to make amends. A few of his classmates, girls mostly, accuse him of being stuck-up, but we never see much evidence of this.
For a teenage boy, Jim is about as close to being without sin as any human could be. Curiously, we never want to kill him or even beat him up, although you spend a lot of time wishing he'd wise up a little faster to what goes on around him. What saves him, what makes him not just tolerable but likable, is Earley's deadpan sense of humor. Just when Jim is trying our patience, Earley brings him gently down to earth with a line so dry that you can't help but smile. Riding in a truck bed at night, Jim stares up at the stars: "A solitary planet remained lit low in the sky, as if someone had forgotten to blow it out. Jim found himself wishing once again that he knew enough about the stars and planets to say, look Chrissie, there's Jupiter, or Mars, or whatever it was, but he also knew, now that daylight was almost here, that he wasn't so interested in astronomy that he would go to the necessary trouble of learning about it."
Some of "The Blue Star"'s best moments occur in the exchanges between Jim and his male friends, particularly his witless friend Dennis Deane, whose foolishness turns out to have very real consequences once he gets a girl pregnant.
"But I'm too young to get married," Dennis Deane said. "Do you have any idea how immature I am?"
Jim laughed. "Yeah, I think I do. You're pretty doggone immature."
"You ain't fooling none, there," Dennis Deane said. "I'm the most immature person I know. I'm practically childish."
"Are you going to marry her?"
"Yeah, I guess so," Dennis Deane said. "Can I shoot your rifle some more?"
Aliceville is Edenic, but it isn't Eden, or it's an Eden in reverse: Jim desperately needs to eat from the tree of knowledge if he is to grow up. Knowledge, gaining an understanding of the world beyond his own nose, is what saves him in the end. In this sense Aliceville itself is a metaphor for innocence, a metaphor that Earley wisely does not lean on too hard, but when he does things click into focus, for Jim and for us: "It wasn't, he realized, much of a place to leave from, or, for that matter, come back to. In the whole world only a handful of people even knew about his going, and once his train left Aliceville the strangers who heard it passing in the distance or waited on it at a crossing or glanced up as it shook their houses would not know that he was on it. And if that same train later carried his body by in the opposite direction, they would not know that either."
Jim is saved by knowledge. What saves his story-exalts it, really-is language. Always careful but never fussy, Earley writes prose so cadenced and so acute that he bewitches his readers with an idyll of boyhood so completely realized that we never want to leave it. It is a very self-conscious idyll-the only truly dangerous character in the book is named Injun Joe-but Earley still manages to pull it off, with one well-chosen detail after another (when Jim has to help carry a coffin for the first time in his life, he discovers, as everyone does the first time, how astonishingly heavy it is). It is a world built of small but not trivial detail, a world, to use Marianne Moore's phrase, of "imaginary gardens with real toads in them." Sweet but never cloying, full of feeling but not sentimental, "The Blue Star" is both believable and enchanting.