Powell's City of Books
Thurs May 3, 7:30 pm
I imagine callingmy childhood phone number to see if anyone answers. The phone number is among my earliest memories, tied to an address of a house long since razed, acres of land turned into parking lots and businesses. Every apple tree, willow, and morning glory is gone. The phone number carries significance for me in memory only, no doubt reassigned to another family, memorized by another grade school child.
This phone number, like the curve and ditch in our long driveway, pancake dinners and the chipped black surface of the kitchen counters, once defined my existence. In his collection of essays, Somehow Form a Family, Tony Earley turns to the mysterious weight of minor childhood detail. He writes from a position of sincerity and bewilderment, trying to make sense of things. Earley is calling his own childhood number, conjuring up a way of life that's at best been reassigned.
For superficial reasons--a publicity photo showing a white man with a receding hairline, wire-framed glasses, and a rounded chin--I think of Earley as Anthony Edwards, aka Dr. Mark Green on E.R. Earley is a Southerner. His voice is nothing like Dr. Green's, but in the photo there's enough of a resemblance that as I read, it's Dr. Green's voice I hear relaying the personal essays.
I don't fight the transposition. Earley himself turns to TV for common ground. He writes, "In July 1969, I looked a lot like Opie in the second or third season of The Andy Griffith Show...." The title essay is about exactly that--how we measure our lives against characters on television. For children in the '60s and '70s in particular, when families who could afford it switched from black and white to color, TV was as important to the family structure as the house itself, the neighbors, or each other. Sitcoms carried landmark weight, seeping into a collective consciousness. Earley writes about his parents' divorce and the death of his sister alongside a list of favorite shows: "On Friday nights we watched The Partridge Family, The Brady Bunch, Room 222... Daddy came to visit on Saturdays. We watched The Little Rascals on channel 3 with Fred Kirby...Shelly and I tried to imagine living with the Bradys but realized we would not fit in. They were richer and more popular at school..."
And of course it's this same period of television, with footage of Vietnam and news of Watergate alongside All In The Family, The Brady Bunch, and M*A*S*H*, that paved the way for where we are culturally now, with a postmodern preference for ironic distance over genuine sentiment. How could anyone take the world seriously when the grisly truth of war and presidential lies was suddenly made visible, cut with advertisements for hemorrhoid cream and Bounty, the quicker picker-upper? But Earley resists any temptation toward ironic detachment. His is the honest voice of a grown-up child looking back, trying to reconcile emotionally complicated events with a seemingly simple surface existence. What does it mean to get golf clubs as a gift, then hear your parents fighting in the next room, and overhear your mother say, "Do you think he's stupid?" Earley's parents divorced. His sister died in an accident. Earley kept on living, in a split-level ranch house, with the TV running the whole time.
As the essays in the collection unfold, the sincerity only increases. Writing from an adult stance, Earley admits he wants to believe in ghosts, to see the death of his sister as something other than the end of her existence. He admits a return to religion and his deep love for his wife, a graduate of the seminary. The final essay is of Earley's participation, as an enthusiastic passenger, in a Concorde jet flight around the world. The flight broke the previous world travel record by over an hour. While other countries greeted the plane with fanfare, Americans shrugged off their turn as one more inconsequential media event. Newspapers barely covered it. He writes, "Maybe it was because the whole adventure seemed bathed in a 1970s glow. We had set out for a spot in the Guinness Book of World Records in an airplane that was 17 years old. We took an Apollo astronaut with us." They also traveled with Kyle Petty, a once-famous race car driver, a grade-school hero of Earley's.
This essay, written now as we move toward an era of space tourism, raises the question of what mattered in the '70s, what still matters, and how value holds. The only answer Earley seems to find is in a clearly not postmodern, not commercialized, though perhaps TV-influenced and somewhat Mayberryesque family existence, with his wife, dogs, and a family car.