A few years ago, while in a mall in Augusta, Georgia, I was asked to participate in a consumer survey, taste-testing microwave pancakes. I wanted to like those pancakes. Before I even took a bite, I told myself the pancakes would be delicious. I employ this same mindset when I pick up a book. It’s going to be scrumptious and I could feed it to my family.
I would feed Tony Earley’s book of personal essays, Somehow Form A Family, to my family. It’s non-controversial, contains only one sentence with curse words, (Earley’s grandfather says “damn” five times when a shotgun falls to the floor and discharges), has no references to sex, drugs, or rock and roll, and is suitable for all ages. But, like microwave pancakes, the substance there is only a hint of the real thing.
The very personal act of reading: to what purpose do we intentionally spend time reading a particular piece of literature? And to what end is it employed? Escapism, information gathering, insight, emotional release? I pick up a book, judge it by its cover, and intend to like it. I admire the hell out of anyone who completes a task and to finish a book represents, to me, the ultimate in task commitment. According to the book jacket, Tony Earley’s collection of personal essays offers the reader a “view of the world from the edge, at the cusp.” Perhaps the intent of these essays is insight, I think to myself, and I begin the straightforward act of reading. The jacket tells me Earley will reveal, in a deceptively simple style, how he has dealt with clinical depression, God, family, and even death. I’m ready to jump into this book.
Earley does indeed touch upon all the big things. In the Introduction, he thoughtfully instructs us on the purpose of narrative form, defines a personal essay, and reveals the true nature of creative nonfiction. In the ten essays which follow (nine are previously published) he provides sketches of the events and people who shaped his life. “Hallway,” for example, offers the reader a glimpse into the interior history of his grandparents’ house. This essay presents an intriguing concept, the essay of a room and its effect on the occupants over time.
I anticipate a strong southern voice, an expectation brought about by Earley’s biographical blurb and from the book’s premise of “personal essays.” Then as I go further, the book jacket tells me the book will reveal “...how hard it is to find your place in the world without letting go of all you came from, without letting go of your authenticity.” From this promise, if one purpose of the essays is to reveal the influence of Earley’s North Carolina family and their effect on his adulthood, I consider my pre-disposed notion of southernness valid and my expectation for a sense of place rational. I want to travel to the places Earley promises he will take me. I want to see him there in my mind. But, with the exception of “The Quare Gene,” which discusses Appalachian Gullah, this collection of essays is so geographically ambigious, it could be grounded anywhere in the US. Geographical ambiguity works well with fiction witness Kaye Gibbons’ Ellen Foster, but notice also that she comes back with a regional bang for your buck with Charms for the Easy Life and places us smack dab in Raleigh. Perhaps the ability to divorce himself from the region is to Earley’s credit but in a series of personal essays, I expect to be grounded to place as well as person.
In the essay A Worn Path, Earley tells us he will tell his goddaughter about his depression, how he spent years trying to convince himself he was an atheist, and how God pulled him out of the ice and into his house. He needs to tell us, now, in this book. Instead he offers one-liners of reference to his sister’s death, his father’s running away, his yearning for respectability growing up as poor white but not white trash. While brevity can charm and intrigue, in this case it leaves the reader with little knowledge of the man behind the essay:
When Jessie is old enough I will tell her about the dark places I have been, the ways I hurt myself and other people because I was angry.
I will also tell her that I rarely find the strength to forgive the people who hurt me, that I nurse and enjoy a multitude of small hatreds, and that I am ashamed for it.
I will tell her how Granny Earley loved me and tried to turn me against my mother at the same time.
These words make me want more. But I am left to wonder about the why, the cause, because Earley stops his revelations at the end of the declaration. No explanation of events, of the depth of feeling, is revealed in this essay or anywhere else in the book. Earley doesn’t need to open a vein, but he’s the one who told us, in the Introduction, that these are personal essays. Thus I should expect to share in his emotional journey.
I realize, soon after reading the title essay, I’m not really learning anything of substance about Earley except how he had a crappy TV set and loved The Brady Bunch. Rather than adopt this cynical viewpoint and cloud my thinking, I read the first essay again, give it another chance. I searched for meaning in the copious lists of television shows he watched. Perhaps there is a hidden agenda here. Every show is white bread maybe he’s making a cultural comment on American pre-occupation with the perfect family as portrayed in 1960s television scripts. But I can’t seem to get a coherent, meaningful interpretation of his intentions out of his dialogue. Earley’s personal essays will be well-received, as his writing is indicative of the popular notion, espoused by the New York Times and Publisher’s Weekly, that we must not tax the intellect of the American public, but would it be too much to ask to feel something?