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Coming of age fiction in the summer of 2000



If summer is the season of love, then certainly it is also the season of childhood. Book publishers know this and understand that there's little harried adults would rather do of a July evening than bury themselves in a coming of age novel and be transported back to the age of possibility.

Two such books have garnered the lion's share of critical attention this summer, Myla Goldberg's luminous first novel, The Bee Season, and Tony Earley's curious, extended creative writing exercise, Jim The Boy.

In The Bee Season we are introduced to one of the freshest characters in American fiction to come down the pike in a while -- Eliza Naumann, a seemingly ordinary 9-year-old who discovers in fourth grade that she is a spelling prodigy.

Her father Saul, a dedicated scholar of Jewish mysticism, dives into the task of preparing Eliza for the state and national spelling bees and Eliza flourishes from the newfound attention heaped on her. Meanwhile, her brother Aaron, formerly at the center of Saul's ongoing spiritual quest, now displaced by Saul's new obsession, wanders away from the close family circle and explores new religious possibilities, eventually hooking up with the local Hare Krishna clan. In the shadows, standing apart from the rest of the family is Eliza's lonely lawyer mother who eventually wanders so far outside the family's radius that she catapults into her own personal madness and permanent isolation.

The Bee Season's charm lies in its quiet voice and delicate insights into the active mind of Eliza. We are with her at her classroom desk, squirming in her seat; we feel the thrill of entering her father's study, a private inner sanctum formerly reserved for Aaron; we know the weird thrill of being onstage at the national spelling bee and the terror of failure.

Goldberg wanders perilously far off course with Miriam, the mother, eventually turning her into a kleptomaniac who enters suburban houses when people are not at home and steals insignificant knick-knacks from them. Still, she makes a powerful point -- all is never as it seems with a family. Everyone has secrets.

Goldberg has a meticulous eye for detail and a fresh, clean prose style which enables the real miracle of The Bee Season -- the depiction of words as a magical realm where insight and foresight are precursors to knowledge. Eliza comes to life when she embraces her gift with words, and so do we as we soak up Goldberg's unabashed delight in the power of language.

Less successful as a moving reading experience is Tony Earley's Jim The Boy, a young adult novel written for adults. Earley's intention is to depict the simple, pre-World War II life of a ten-year-old North Carolina farm boy completely through unadulterated eyes, and at this he succeeds, never faltering or altering his tone.

But the experiment comes off as stilted and forced, and frankly, except for the end when things begin to happen in Jim's life, the book is boring. Earley's brilliant short story collection, Here We Are in Paradise, for which he was named by Granta as one of the most important young American writers, was alive with prickly humor and bold descriptions. In comparison, Jim The Boy is static and rarely moves the reader beyond the effort required to flip the page.

The book opens with a letter from one of Jim's uncles to his paternal grandfather, letting him know simultaneously that his son, Jim Glass, has unexpectedly died at the age of 23, and that a grandson, also named Jim, has been born. Jim is raised by his timid mother and three loving uncles -- Zeno, Coran and Al, the best characters in the book. Eventually he yearns to learn more about his father and a pilgrimage up the mountain to his grandfather's death bed provides the climax, if you can call it that, of the book.

I wondered, reading Jim The Boy, if it would succeed as a young adult novel on the order of, say, Laura Ingalls Wilder's Little House in the Big Woods, and concluded that it would not. Earley is so determined to paint Jim as an ordinary boy that he does not meet the requirement of that brand of fiction to transport the reader to another place. Wilder's Laura has a vivid inner life and her life is stocked with adventures at every turn; Jim's life is simple, pure and uncomplicated, and though we can appreciate Earley's attempt to capture that in language, it is not necessarily interesting.

Easily worth a place alongside either of these books, and worthy of the early praise it has received, is the debut short story collection of Elizabeth Stuckey-French, The First Paper Girl in Red Oak, Iowa.

The characters that populate these stories are quirky, rugged, funny and artfully drawn. In the title story, Cherry, a young mother, throws her kids in the back seat of her car one night and heads out in a blizzard from her Iowa home for Virginia Beach where she hopes to hook up with her lover. In Indiana, she picks up Nick, a gas station attendant, and pays him $250 to share the drive. As they journey across Kentucky and West Virginia, Cherry tells Nick about herself and how she was the first paper girl in Red Oak, Iowa, and by doing so, recovers her sense of herself as a person capable of adventure and daring.

In "Junior," a young woman in trouble with the law retreats to her grandmother's house in New Mexico where she is drawn into a scam involving lost pets. Through a series of misadventures and an eventual return to normalcy, she discovers that grown-ups are far more troubled than "bad" kids.

In "Doodlebug," a young mother announces to her husband that she hates their children and wants to kill them. While he plays horsey with the kids, she retreats to her bedroom and writes a letter to her mother, explaining that in an act of carelessness the children destroyed a necklace of silver beads, her last physical link to her dead father. She imagines her mother's response ("Her mother, a Southern lady, has a platitude for every occasion.") and is comforted:

She has heard those platitudes all her life. What she hates most about them are the splinters of truth they contain.

She crumples up the letter, tosses it into the fire, and watches as the edges start to glow. The entire ball of paper burns red and quivers, then turns black. Just two more hours, the mother thinks, and we'll all be asleep in our beds. Two more hours, and this day will be over.

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