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Vastly different stories tell about coming of age

“The Blue Star,” by Tony Earley. Little, Brown and Co. 286 pp. $23.99.”The End of the World As We Know It: Scenes from a Life,” Robert Goolrick. Algonquin Books. 225 pp. $13.95, paperback.
By Elizabeth Cook
Salisbury Post
Two books could not be more different in tone than Tony Earley’s “The Blue Star” and Robert Goolrick’s “The End of the World As We Know It,” both released in recent weeks. The first is a sweet novel set during World War II; the second is a searing memoir from the cocktail era of the 1950s and 1960s.
But in telling their coming-of-age stories, the books share timeless themes ó the uncertainty of adolescence, the instinctive need for love and the power adults almost unwittingly have to shape the lives of children.
First, the good news. Earley has written a sequel to his wonderful “Jim the Boy” that is very nearly as touching and heartwarming as that Depression-era tale. Both are set in a small town in the North Carolina mountains and have a sense of warmth and knowledge about them. Through occasional letters, speeches and clear, crisp narrative, “The Blue Star” carries Jim through his senior year in high school and subtly portrays the currents of romance and fear that fuel so much of adolescence.
Though he still has his widowed mother and bachelor uncles to shield him from the world’s cruelties, Jim struggles to fit what is right within what he wants. He is helplessly drawn to forbidden fruit ó Chrissie, whose fiance is off fighting in World War II.
Earley’s books about Jim reflect an earlier time that on the surface has “Leave It To Beaver” simplicity. Consider this exchange between Jim and friend Dennis Deane, who wants the scoop on Jim’s ex-girlfriend.
“How far did you get? Third base?”
“Dennis Deane, I really don’t want to talk about Norma.”
“Second base?”
Jim blushed miserably but didn’t reply. His recent, brief trip to second base with Norma didn’t feel like anything he should brag about.
“First base?” Dennis Deane said in disbelief. “You dated Norma Harris all that time and you only got to first base?”
“Norma didn’t like baseball,” Jim said. “I don’t want to talk about this anymore.”
As usual, though, life is more complex below the surface.
Jim is shocked to learn his Uncle Zeno once found a war standing between him and the true love of his youth ó Chrissie’s mother. Jim never considered that the stoic Zeno could ever have experienced romantic love. World War I soured that relationship just as surely as World War II threatens Jim’s and Chrissie’s.
Just as sad is the fix the inquisitive Dennis Deane gets in after hitting his own home run. He wins himself an express ticket to adulthood ó do not pass go, do not even think about adventure ó and a heap of regret.
nnn
Regret is in short supply in “The End of the World As We Know It.” So are the admission of wrongdoing and requests for forgiveness.
Goolrick’s memoir is also set near mountains ó this time in a small college town in Virginia, where his attractive, witty parents give or attend an endless stream of parties, all seemingly centered around the cocktail hour. They are glamorous, clever and envied by all.
This is pre-Mothers Against Drunk Driving, pre-Surgeon General’s warnings on cigarette packs. Danger and risk are never considered. It’s just fun, fun, fun ó on the surface.
“My father died because he drank too much,” the story begins, and proceeds to the elderly man’s burial and wake, all viewed through Goolrick’s drunken, drugged-up haze. From the beginning, it’s clear the writer has a problem. He appears to have inherited addictive tendencies from his parents.
But as he digs further into his adolescence and childhood, revealing his story bit by bit, it becomes apparent something far more sinister is at work in Goolrick’s troubled soul.
His writing ranges from sharp and sardonic to almost poetic, with stream-of-consciousness passages revealing his disjointed thinking.
Finally, through narrative that at times is almost Faulkneresque, he arrives at the pivotal moment that set his life so tragically off kilter. He describes it in graphic detail that the reader will find hard to shake. No wonder Goolrick ó unaided by his mother, brushed aside by a grandmother who might have helped ó grows up torn between love and hate, adoration and enmity, twisted by feelings he is still processing.
An interview with the author at the end of the book helps the reader understand why Goolrick decided to scratch open his family’s ugly wounds ó he says the “cruel silence” about child abuse has to end.
His life story is also a raw warning for those still in the I-can-handle-it denial stage of alcoholism.
“I still think of drinking with a light and a sweetness that in no way resemble the actual circumstances of those days,” Goolrick writes. “Except for a few occasions, it was just being rode hard and put away wet, and I wept at my own behavior almost every night. I lost a decade of my life, just lost it, the way you might lose an umbrella on the bus.”
Goolrick may find the telling of his story cleansing in some way. He certainly penned it in compelling fashion, drawing the reader along with new bits of information. But in the end the reader comes away feeling sullied and sad. Richard Goolrick’s memoir is a tragic tale. No one should have to live with such memories.
Contact Elizabeth Cook at 704-797-4244 or editor@salisburypost.com.

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