When the Finch Risesby Jack Riggs
When the Finch Rises is the debut novel of an author whose work will be read as classic literature for a long time to come. It is a story full of truths and revelations, transcending its fictional bounds to become something so real and so finely wrought that it will simply astonish. Jack Riggs has created an emotional testament to the myriad/i>
When the Finch Rises is the debut novel of an author whose work will be read as classic literature for a long time to come. It is a story full of truths and revelations, transcending its fictional bounds to become something so real and so finely wrought that it will simply astonish. Jack Riggs has created an emotional testament to the myriad shades of the human condition.
It is the late 1960s in the small North Carolina mill town of Ellenton. Twelve-year-old Raybert Williams and his best friend Palmer Conroy live in cramped homes in a working-class neighborhood, but they use the vast outdoors as their personal playground. Yet hardships are never far away. Raybert’s father disappears for days at a time, only to come home broken and battered. Raybert’s mother is a loving woman who battles her own demons while struggling to keep it all together. Palmer’s family life offers no better refuge for the adventure-seeking boys.
But Raybert and Palmer have each other. And in that glorious friendship, they are significantly blessed. They dream together of space flight and moonwalks. They construct a bike jump to rival Evel Knievel’s–and they’ll run it once they work up the courage. Knievel tempted fate and won, taking a leap over twenty buses on faith alone, soaring high and landing safely, even after many crashes and broken bones. Palmer and Raybert have their own plan that, once executed, will take them all the way to the ocean, landing them intact and together on the other side of freedom.
Through the scrim of adolescence and poverty, Jack Riggs offers a glimpse of universal human foibles and singular moments of transcendence. Fiercely honest and beautifully narrated, When the Finch Rises flashes like the sharp rim of the eclipsed moon on the night when Raybert and Palmer’s fate is finally revealed.
From the Hardcover edition.
–LEE SMITH, author of The Last Girls
“Refreshingly different . . . Clear-eyed and fair . . . [Riggs] pulls everything together with honesty and grace, the fate of each character seeming both unexpected and inevitable.”
–The Charlotte Observer
“Riggs conjures up the mysteries of a mill town summer, vividly depicting the lights and shadows of ordinary events and horrors. . . . [A] deeply satisfying portrait of a troubled family.”
–The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
“[Readers will] be taken with narrator Raybert’s vivid and poignant recollection of and reflection on his childhood, and appreciative of the choices Riggs made in bringing it to life.”
- Random House Publishing Group
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Read an Excerpt
The day Aunt Iris called Daddy and told him to come home, snow lay thick and deep throughout Ellenton. The weather was still deteriorating, and by dark, the snow that had fallen wispy and free all day long came down in wet clumps, dense as sludge, icing the second after touching the ground. It fell wet and sticky and fast making us all look rather abominable as we traversed yards made remarkably unfamiliar in the dark by the sparkling wintry coat. Palmer Conroy, Lucky Luther, Billy Parker, and Tommy Patterson converged along the alley that ran beside my house, and there we built a fire to warm frozen hands and feet as we battled the frigid night taking breaks from downhill runs that began in front of my house and ended in Palmer Conroy’s driveway.
Palmer’s sled could carry six down the hill at incredible speed. The only problem was we could not steer the thing at all. Our slim, gangly bodies could not coax the sled to do anything but fly in a straight line, and so we grabbed hold of one another, the cold air whipping tears from our eyes, blurring our world as we raced out of control. On each daring ride, at the last possible moment, somebody would yell, “Jump!” and all would bail out rolling off the sled for lack of nerve to stay on. Our bodies tumbled and slid through snow and slush as the unmanned rocket careened across Third Street and up Palmer’s driveway before crashing into the backend of the Conroy’s still new 1965 Pontiac Catalina.
Each time the sled drove headlong into the rear of the car, we rolled ourselves up and out of the snow to stand erect, bodies raw and chapped watching the empty collision take place. It was as if we were still waiting for Palmer’s father to come blasting out of the house in undershirt and boxer shorts as he’d so often done to laugh at us. But RC Conroy had been dead for almost three years, and so the sled sat immobile in the quiet emptiness, lodged beneath the Catalina until one of us gave in and walked the short distance across the street to retrieve it.
The night my daddy slipped out of the storm, the winter sky broke open momentarily to produce a shower of moonlight catching our attention and drawing our gaze upward. We had studied space in school, knew our planets and could pick out the redness of Mars in the evening sky and Venus in the morning. We knew what NASA stood for, and could imagine the power of a Saturn V rocket blasting an Apollo capsule into the vast emptiness of space. Through that brief patch of clear night, we strained to see astronauts streak across the sky, but our imaginations could not stay aloft for very long. The brilliant flames of the fire in front of us kept pulling them back down to earth. When the sky disappeared behind the storm, snow resumed and a figure appeared out beyond the fire trudging his way along the street curb. It was Daddy coming home.
We watched as he slowly plodded toward us, hands pushing hard against thighs with every step in an effort to wade through nearly a foot of snow. He made his way slipping and sliding across Robbins Street and then pushed the final distance to arrive upright, melted snow freezing quickly to his unshaven face. A blanket of white laid evenly over his hat and well-worn hunting jacket, and though he did not say, I knew he had been outside for a long time, that the walk had brought him a great distance home. He came close to the fire, and there, within the circle, sat down on a concrete block to warm exposed hands and thaw plastic loafers that were cracked in the seams, packed full with snow.
He sipped Jim Beam from a pocket flask, his body steaming heavily like he was on fire. He whistled for us to come around, waved us in close to the flames with his flask. From where I stood, I could see his hands were clawed up, his knuckles scraped until the soft red exposed meat glistened with the wetness of damp blood. Though his eyes were no more than bruised slits, they still could lock a boy down, and he pulled each of us in from the cold without question to talk about things my daddy said were important.
When we were all accounted for, he spread the snow to uncover raw ground and pluck up a short, wide blade of grass, delicately positioning it between his two thumbs. He lifted his torn hands to his face like he was ready to pray, but instead, blew across the paper-thin edge to create a warbling, gobblelike sound of a turkey.
The awkward noise pierced the winter night, echoing off houses down the alleyway filling the air with the sudden sound of anxious mutts pulling hard on chains and clawing up fences. As each warbling echo died and the darkness outside the range of our fire began to settle, Daddy would lift his hands to his lips and break the silence wide open again. Three times he did this. Three times he brought lights on in bedrooms and robe-wrapped bodies out onto front porches.
We all laughed out loud, as drunk on the evening as my daddy was on his Jim Beam. Tommy Patterson rolled around on the ground and started making monkey sounds. Billy Parker stuffed his mouth full with raw snow and then blew it out into the fire, the hiss soft and subtle in the burning coals. Lucky Luther laughed so hard at Billy spitting snow that he peed in his pants and had to go home early. Palmer Conroy asked my daddy for a cigarette, and that stopped us all. We watched as he thought about it and then gave the boy a Camel. Palmer held the nonfiltered cigarette as if it were a natural extension of his hand. He lit the end with a burning twig and then inhaled the aromatic smoke before letting it seep out of his mouth and nose.
Tommy Patterson sat up and stopped acting like a monkey. “Goddamn Palmer, I didn’t know you smoked.”
Billy Parker said, “My daddy says smoking will stunt your growth.”
I said, “Give me one of those,” and Tommy Patterson said goddamn again.
Daddy took a long swig rolling the liquor cheek to cheek before spitting into the fire. The sudden blast of alcohol re- ignited the flames and sent sparks floating through leafless trees. The burst of flame projected Daddy’s shadow onto our house and he became bigger than life.
He stood up holding the flask out before him. “All you boys got mouths dirtier than dog shit, so just shut up ’cause there’s something you ought to know about what I just did.” He pointed out into the dark alley toward a field that lay deep in snow. “I seen the animal when I was your age right out there by the Parker house. It wasn’t there yet, Billy Parker’s house I mean. There was only a field of weeds most of the time. We played a lot of ball out there. I hit the hell out of a baseball on that field. I could hit it all the way to Perty Spears’s back porch. Hell I took out her kitchen window more than once. Got my hide tanned for that, I’ll damn guarantee you. But I could hit it and so I did. I suffered the consequences for a talent I just had to use. I was about your age when I first saw the turkey. I was eleven or twelve years old. Biggest bird I ever laid eyes on.”
Palmer Conroy had moved away when Daddy ignited the flames and now sat in deep shadows cast like fingers from the trees rooted on the edge of the fire pit. The ember from his cigarette pulsed each time he drew his lungs full of smoke, and I could see Daddy was watching him out the corner of his eye. Palmer flicked ashes, then spit into the snow. “RC said that turkey story was just bull. He said this ain’t no Wild Kingdom. They ain’t no wild nothing roaming around here.”
Palmer had always called his parents by their first names, something I could never have done and then lived to tell about it. And even though RC was dead, Palmer talked about him all the time like he was still alive and walking around. I looked at him and said, “How do you know about the turkey?”
Tommy Patterson said, “Everybody knows about the tur- key, Raybert. Where you been all your life?”
Everyone at the fire laughed for a moment and tossed loose snow at me, the cold flakes stinging where they stuck to chapped skin. I looked over at Daddy embarrassed and he winked at me like it was nothing, like he had been there forever and had not just shown up for the first time in two weeks. I wanted to spit at him for not telling me about the turkey sooner than in this public offering. I wanted to say I could smoke a cigarette, that I had just smoked one from a pack Palmer stole from Nichols Market before we came to build the fire. I wanted to scream that he could go back to wherever it was he had come from, that he shouldn’t be there anyway. But of course, I didn’t dare.
Palmer made nothing out of any of this. He smoked his cigarette and looked at Daddy, still challenging, making him work harder than I imagine he really wanted to. Daddy paused only long enough to lift his flask to his lips and then turn his gaze toward the boy. “Palmer, God rest your daddy’s ghost, but he was just wrong about all that. I seen the turkey and right after I seen it, the next day, Perty Spears was dead on the ground out in back of her house. She had tried to mow her grass in the middle of the afternoon in August heat and her heart give out. Now, Perty Spears wasn’t no crazy old coot. She knew better than to do a fool thing like that. They say she saw the turkey and went insane, tried to use the lawnmower to get the old bird. Instead, she had a heart attack and was already cold when they found her.” Daddy swigged at his flask and then looked directly at me. “And you know what?”
I shook my head.
He looked beyond the flames into the dark sky, his nar- rowed eyes roaming, reaching out past our wet bodies. “When old man Vance came to get Perty, the turkey was only fifteen feet away from her. It had flown off as best turkeys can fly when the hearse drove up into the yard. Old man Vance nearly had a heart attack himself when he saw what the bird had done. Perty Spears’s eyes had been pecked out. Yes sir, pecked out clean. At the funeral, they kept the casket closed. Wasn’t nobody gonna look at her without eyes.”
From the Hardcover edition.
Meet the Author
Jack Riggs’s writing has been published in The Crescent Review, The Chattahoochee Review, The Habersham Review, and Writing, Making It Real. In 2000, he was selected as an “Emerging New Southern Voice” at the Millennial Gathering of Writers of the New South at Vanderbilt University. He has been a finalist in the Glimmer Train Fiction Contest and was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. The author teaches at Georgia Perimeter College in Atlanta.
From the Hardcover edition.
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As a fan of coming of age novels, this was one of my all time favorite. Riggs does an excellent job of making you feel like you are in North Carolina with the characters living right along with them. If you like classics like To Kill A Mockingbird and Catcher in the Rye, you will surely love this book as well.
Few authors can capture the world through the eyes of a child without being overly simplistic, but Jack Riggs has hit the nail on the head on his first try. WHEN THE FINCH RISES (Ballantine, hd. 23.95), recalling novels like To Kill A Mockingbird and My Dog Skip, is told with honesty and insight, showing Southern life as a child would see it in the 1960s ¿ a swirling world of racial and political tension that birthed an entirely new nation. Two young boys, Raybert and Palmer, are caught up in the whirlwind of everyday rural life around the floodplain of the Finch River, a place as volatile as their lives at home. Raybert is forced to cope with his father¿s dark past and bleak future, his mother¿s episodes of ¿chasing her tail¿ that can be induced by the mere mention of Bobby Kennedy, and his own bumpy road to adolescence. Palmer faces a life without a real father and a mother who curses the day he was born. The two boys hatch a scheme to escape with only their imaginations and heroes like Evel Kneivel to guide them. Riggs beautifully captures these young boys¿ lives as the tight-rope act from which a fall is not only threatening, but expected. (NC)
When The Finch Rises is Jack Riggs¿ grafting of Harper Lee and William Kennedy on to a modern Southern story which is at once both entertaining and painful. The novel is the tale of two young boys, Raybert and Palmer, told by Raybert as he watches his family dissolve. His mother is slowly succumbing to a mental illness which causes her to find conspiracy and deceit in nearly every person except her son and his angelic friend Palmer. Raybert¿s father does not understand her illness and cannot help her, and he deals with the illness by running away, often for days at a time, returning to his family bloody and beaten from fighting behind bars and in alleys. Raybert¿s witness to the slow demise of his parent¿s place in his life is the heart of the novel. He must watch as the foundations of his childhood fall away more and more quickly as his mother¿s illness progresses and his father¿s inability to hold his family together moves beyond his father¿s desire to even try. It is this dissolution of the family that provides the reader with not only a shared pain for Raybert but a sympathy and affection for the boy as well. The loss of Raybert¿s childhood is impeded at times, though, by brief moments of wonder and the excitement and enthusiasm of boyhood. Raybert spends much of the novel cruising his neighborhood on his bicycling while considering the bravery of daredevil star Evel Knievel. He wants a G.I. Joe action figure for his birthday and discusses the toy¿s useful qualities with his mother in the hope she will buy him one. His father gives him a pellet gun and Raybert learns the painful lessons many young boys learn when they are given the power of life and death over small animals. Finally, Palmer provides Raybert with the kind of adventures and friendships only the young can devise and exploit into lifelong memories. When The Finch Rises is an examination of the sometimes painful nature of life, tempered by moments of classic American pop culture and the icons that culture has produced as highway markers through our recent history. Raybert¿s story is as painful as watching a mother¿s love dissolve to near invisibility and it is as joyous as memories of swimming as a child on a perfect summer day. Riggs¿ story-telling ability reminds us that there is a balance to be found between the great events of the day and the day-to-day events which are the real moments of life. The novel is certainly not without its flaws, but putting those small failures into the context of the work only heightens what Riggs seems to be saying to his readers: we must look around the corners of our flaws to find what wonders are next. Bishop Hadley