In Mr. Tall: Stories and a Novella, by Tony Earley,
the author of Jim the Boy and The Blue Star presents a hilarious and dead serious new version for adults of the tale about “that Jack,” the one of Beanstalk and Giant Killer fame. As he waits for the farmer to go to sleep, so he can bend the farmer’s wife over a plow for the price of four dollars, Jack sips a colorless liquid from the mason jar he found in the middle of the road. The drink is not moonshine, however, but “seeing juice.” Jack will never be the same.
Earley has given the priapic youth of folklore a conscience. Never again will his belief in his own powers enable him to seduce and rob and hoodwink and cuckold every passerby without cost to himself. When he sets out for Yonder and meets a sweet young virgin, he will never again be able to roll her in the hay with no thought of consequence and then set out again without remorse. He won’t be able to keep aloft the flying bottom-rotted rowboat and white-oak contraption in which he and his friend Tom Dooley escape the snarling black dog that blocks Jack at every bridge he encounters.
Theold man who has “spen[t] all those years and spells and truck helping [the boy] out,” when the old man “could’ve boodled up all the treasure for [him]self…,” “could’ve been the one [who] diddled all the maidens and flummoxed the giants and stole the gold and soared around in the flying boat”—that same old man is the one who left the seeing juice in the road. He sounds like a worn-out father at the end of his son’s exhausting adolescence. Now he has run out of gifts:
“Jack, you ain’t going to understand a word of this, but being a king didn’t interest me none, and I never developed a taste for treasure. But making sure no harm come to you once you set out? That there made me rich as I ever cared to be.”
A nameless cry laddered up the inside of Jack’s ribcage toward the light. “But I’m ethically challenged,” he said.
“You are that.”
“And I never think about nobody but myself.”
“You do not.
“I don’t deserve a single thing you give me.”
“No, sir, not one. You always have been, and continue to be, a most unworthy vessel.”
“Because, honey, that’s what makes it count.”
In this gloss on assorted folktales, Earley makes fun of everything and everybody, including the “pointyheads” who write glosses on folktales. The novella curls back on itself and comments on
Earley’s own literary techniques. Jack winds up in a double-wide at the top of the hill with a pail of water, Jill, and a baby, having discovered responsibility as a tornado bears down on them.
Just as happens every day to grownups in the real world.