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Memphis Flyer Southern Living

By Leonard Gill

MAY 29, 2000:  A year-long look into the life of a North Carolina 10-year-old. The year: 1934. An in-depth look at an unconventional Civil War outfit and its decisive role in the Battle of Memphis. The year: 1862. A decades-long look into another life, that of the playwright Tennessee Williams. The years: 1911 to 1983. Three books, then -- a novel, a history, a biography -- and each with many, if not all, of its pages planted firmly on Southern soil or in Southern waters. It's not yet summer 2000, but for readers the living is already uneasy.

Uneasy on the fiction front, for starters, in Jim the Boy (Little, Brown; 227 pp.; $23.95) by Tony Earley, the author of exactly one collection of short stories (Here We Are in Paradise) but an author already branded by that self-appointed, literary clearinghouse Granta magazine as one of America's best young writers and by The New Yorker as one of the 21st century's most promising young writers. You decide how a writer is one moment judged among the "best," the next moment judged among the "most promising," when judging from this, Earley's first novel, what he is clearly shooting for is the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval.

Set in the small town of Aliceville, North Carolina, during the Depression, Jim the Boy chronicles a year in the life of a fatherless child raised by a mother in perpetual mourning for her dead husband and guided by a triple-headed father-figure in the form of a barely distinguishable trio of uncles. Milestone events -- Jim's first, humiliating try at hoeing a field, Jim's first baseball glove, Jim's first view of the Atlantic Ocean, Jim's introduction to electric lights, Jim's first run-in with a gang of ruffians, Jim's first and final deathbed view of his lawless grandfather -- are duly reported, the lesson arrived at duly noted in case the over-obvious weren't obvious enough. The chief lesson? The broader the boy's horizons, the smaller the world he thought he knew. A worthy lesson? No question. Tony Earley's handling of it? Again, no question. Connect the dots simplistically, schematically supplied by the author and hope we don't get a repeat performance in Jim the Teenager.

On a different front, the Memphis waterfront on June 6, 1862, to be exact, we do have reason to thank the meticulous fact-finding of Chester G. Hearn in Ellet's Brigade (LSU Press; 279 pp.; $34.95). On that date and before a bluff crowded with anxious citizens and a non-participating U.S. Navy, a grand total of two unarmed but lightweight, fast-moving, iron-bowed steamers designed by Charles Ellet Jr. (under the personal jurisdiction of Secretary of the Army Edwin M. Stanton) triumphed over Confederate forces and succeeded in planting the Stars and Stripes atop the city's post office. Those steamers were Ellet's invention, and whether the U.S. Navy chose to hire them officially or not was of minor importance to the inventor. Ellet and the commanding kinsmen who followed him, with Stanton's overriding approval, used them but never to greater effect.

Memphis was Ellet's proving ground. The river below Memphis, especially at Vicksburg and inlying areas, was the Ram Fleet's, and later the Mississippi Marine Brigade's, eventual undoing. The full story behind what Hearn calls in his subtitle "The Strangest Outfit of All" is an extraordinarily focused one, one so chock-full of detail as to test the attention of even the hardiest Civil War buff. With Ellet's Brigade, however, an underreported chapter in American history comes finally to full light.

For strange outfits of a different stripe, see Dakin Williams and Shepherd Mead's His Brother's Keeper (Dakin's Corner Press; 342 pp.; $19.95), a war book in its own right and one of scant peace if your uneasy task (as Dakin, a military man and trial lawyer, understood it) was to serve and protect the interests, not to mention the physical, mental, and to some extent spiritual well-being, of a world-famous brother who went by the name Tennessee. The book is subtitled "The Life and Murder of Tennessee Williams," but the murder angle, provable or not, isn't what colors these pages. It's the complicated make-up of a life lived largely on the move, and the make-up of that life's work, that's restaged here -- plus one man's faith in one brother's talent, down to the last, win, lose, or draw.


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