Great writing has the ability to show you an entire world you thought was foreign until you see yourself in the middle of it-- Great writing makes you weep for your own sake, without a speck of sentimentality to the words-- Great writing makes you say, “I know that person,” or “Oh my God, that’s me.” Tony Earley’s slim new memoir, Somehow Form a Family [stories that are mostly true] [Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill] is a fine example of great writing.
A meandering trip through moments of Earley’s life and family lore, this book takes us through personal anecdotes and history and heartbreak; from his Granny’s sadly unfulfilled life and steadfast faith, through his sister’s death and the persistence of her memory, through his television-fed boyhood into life as a semi-confused adult fumbling around with ideas about whom he might be.
He shares moments of humor tinged with sadness, such as the time when he saw Ann B. Davis, the actress who played “Alice” on “The Brady Bunch” in a cafeteria. Too shy to speak to her, he says,
I wanted her to be Alice. I wanted her to smile as if she loved me. I wanted her to say, “Buck up, kiddo, everything’s going to be all right.” And what I’m trying to tell you now is this: I grew up in a split-level, ranch-style house outside a town that could have been anywhere. I grew up in front of a television. I would have believed her.
Earley’s style is clear-cut and simple, yet so poignant and eloquent it could only be considered prose. His humor is as quiet and deadly accurate as the sadness, and he wistfully speaks of what we all hope for: ghosts, understanding our families, figuring it all out. Maybe he says it best here:
The unexamined life may not be worth living, but sometimes it allows you to live momentarily on planets more romantic and interesting than your own.
The joke is on us, though, because Earley knows us all inside and out.