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Nick's JANUARY Dotters Pick

ON TONY EARLEY’S JIM THE BOY and ROBERT SEETHALER’s A WHOLE LIFE

By Nickolas Butler

Back in 2000, I was working at the Canterbury Inn & Bed & Breakfast.  The Canterbury Inn was an extension of the beloved (and since closed) Canterbury Books.  It was a wonderful place to work, especially for a college-aged bookworm with hazy ambitions of becoming a writer himself.  Many of the writers that read at Canterbury Books would, their reading concluded, spend the night at the Inn, and I was the person that checked them in and escorted them to their rooms.  Dave Eggers (whose reading was so well-attended there almost wasn’t enough space to breathe, truly), Colson Whitehead, David Sedaris, Bill Bryson…  I studied these writers and my most important takeaway was this: They all seemed mortal and a great many of them also looked very tired, indeed.  I took some solace in these details.

Another benefit to working at the Canterbury was that it was something of an arts incubator.  I am not the only writer to have risen from its ranks into a life in publishing: Dean Bakopoulos (author of Please Don’t Come Back from the Moon, My American Unhappiness, and most recently Summerlong) was a clerk in the bookstore.  As was his brother-in-law, Jeremiah Chamberlain, who has published extensively and now teaches at the University of Michigan.  At the time, I studied Dean and Jeremy’s Staff Book Picks, and in this way, found an unlikely education.  Through Dean and Jeremy I began reading Rick Bass, Jim Harrison, and Tom Franklin.  And that was how I came to discover Tony Earley’s Jim the Boy, published in 2000.

Jim the Boy was described in The New York Times as going “back to basics”.  I suppose that’s accurate, or at least gets the point across.  In many ways it feels like a simple book.  And in the literary world, “simple” can be a dirty word.  Writers, often to their own peril, want to be seen as “complex” – who doesn’t?  And along comes this quiet book about a little boy growing up in Appalachia, trying to find his identity, his family.  It is an achingly kind book.  It is sweet.  And it is never selfish or overly indulgent.  Never overwritten.  It is the kind of book I strive to write.  It is the kind of book I forever search for and rarely find.

Robert Seethaler’s A Whole Life (translated from the German by Charlotte Collins) is the one of the first books I’ve read since Jim the Boy that delivers the same degree of kindness and decency and it is a book that I will remember and recommend until the end of my days because it is true and compassionate.

Spanning more than half a century and set in the European Alps, A Whole Life is the quiet story of Andreas Egger, a rather simple but hard-working man who narrates the steady changes of his place on earth, high in the mountains above a small alpine village.  Egger’s life is rarely easy.  He is often mistreated: by his adopted family, perhaps by his employers, and later, as a reluctant member of the Nazi Army.  The village is somewhat unsure of how to treat Egger.  But he endures the cold and the occasional calamity, living a graceful sort of life in search of tenderness, love, and friendship.  He appreciates the smallest beauty and does not live apart from nature, but rather moves effortlessly through its seasons, often cheating death or injury.  

Egger’s life is beautifully and gently rendered by Seethaler whose narrative powers throughout this book reminded me of Coetzee’s work in The Life and Times of Michael K.  I believe that a reader wants more than anything to, first.) be transported by a story, second.) to learn, know, and begin to adore a character.  Surely a writer can succeed without a riveting story or with utterly unlikable characters (my own The Hearts of Men has more than one unlikable character, though, to me, they were all likable, redeemable characters…) but it is, as we say around here, “tough sledding”, to succeed without a propelling story or likable characters.  Seethaler’s prose (and Collins’ translation) is remarkable.  It is quite a literary feat to write prose that seems unadorned, but which still sparkles and glints, pulses and bleeds.  Seethaler’s writing is utterly hypnotic, at times, magical.  I can’t wait to read his other book, The Tobacconist.

For many readers bogged down by our endlessly tumultuous and often negative news-cycle, Jim the Boy or A Whole Life will be just what the doctor ordered, a soothing balm, especially in these dark, cold, wintry days.