When the Finch Rises

When the Finch Rises

5.0 3
by Jack Riggs

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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

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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.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“A perfect evocation of time and place . . . Jack Riggs has crafted a gem of a novel here–hard and brilliant, it cuts to the bone.”
–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.”
Richmond Times-Dispatch

Publishers Weekly
A North Carolina mill town in 1968 is the setting for this strained, overwritten first novel about an intense friendship between two boys from troubled families. Twelve-year-old Raybert's mother, Evelyn, is mentally unstable; she bounces from periods of lucidity to moments when, as Raybert's Aunt Iris puts it, she's "like a dog that chases its tail." Ray, her husband, similarly lurches back and forth between episodes of drunken brawling and responsible fatherhood. Raybert's best friend, Palmer, is an oddly precocious boy, effeminate at times and often sounding older than his 12 years. His widowed mother, Inez, and her brutal boyfriend, Edgar, beat him mercilessly, forcing him into a hideaway crawl space beneath the house. The boys' discovery of ugly family secrets Raybert's father seems to have been involved in a lynching, and Edgar is hiding nude photographs of Palmer's teenage sister further shakes their faith in grownups. Turning to each other for solace, they develop a quasi-romantic relationship (in one of Raybert's dreams, Palmer kisses him on the lips) and dream of escaping to a fantasy world that includes Evel Knievel and the Lone Ranger. Riggs's sympathy for his characters is evident, and he conveys a strong visceral sense of their ramshackle physical surroundings and the tense national political climate. But choked, awkward sentences ("His cold, violent stare ratcheted down instantly to something of surprise") and choppy plotting squeeze the life out of Riggs's heartfelt tale. (Oct.) Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
In 1968, Raybert Jr., 12, lives a hard life in a Southern mill town with a mentally ill mother and a father who disappears whenever things get difficult. His best friend, Palmer, suffers a different kind of abuse at the hands of a hateful mother and her volatile boyfriend. The two plan on stealing Palmer's dead daddy's Catalina and escaping to Myrtle Beach as soon as the time is right. Unfortunately, the time never comes, as the adults around them become increasingly dysfunctional and self-absorbed. Soon, life as they know it falls apart, ruining one boy's life for the foreseeable future and offering a second chance to the other. This harsh and disturbing account of two families' disintegration is not pleasant; the dialog is abrasive, the town setting oozes isolation and despair, and the adult characters are unforgiving and sometimes offensive. Nevertheless, Raybert and Palmer are boys to root for, and the reader is left with hope that they will make it just fine. Recommended for most collections.-Kellie Gillespie, City of Mesa Lib., AZ Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
A stilted, self-conscious debut chronicles one of those defining boyhood friendships that changes life forever. The year and the friendship that transform adolescence are by now a familiar cliché. Though southern author Riggs tries to give them literary heft by turning the flight of finches into metaphors to frame the narrative, the story is essentially a collection of types and incidents-promising much but never delivering, as the predictable cast of doomed characters inevitably mess up. Set in the 1960s in a small North Carolina town on flood-prone Finch Creek, the story is told by Raybert, who lives with his unstable mother Inez. Daddy, a former GI, has a drinking problem and is often away, and Raybert's best friend Palmer lives across the street. Palmer is slight for his age, has a flaming birthmark on his head, and regularly consults with RC, his dead father. His mother has a new man in her life, Edgar, a hard-drinking pervert, who takes and collects photographs. When Raybert turns 13, his life becomes even more complicated as Palmer steals one of Edgar's photographs that shows a lynching of a local African-American. The picture clearly shows Raybert's Daddy as part of the mob. With this to ponder, the year starts going into free-fall as Daddy comes back and tries to woo Inez with a new garden that's soon destroyed by the flooding Finch Creek; and Inez has a miscarriage, breaks down, and is hospitalized. Meanwhile, Palmer increasingly angers the abusive Edgar with his pert comments. Palmer, whose mother is as abusive as Edgar, dreams of running away to Myrtle Beach with Raybert as soon as he can reach the pedals of RC's 1965 Pontiac Catalina, currently parked in the drive. As Edgargets the Pontiac running and notches up his abuse, Raybert's Daddy moves out and Raybert goes to live with his wealthy aunt and uncle. Poor Palmer isn't so fortunate. Tired and familiar territory, but not without some promise. Agent: Stella Connell/Connell Agency

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Product Details

Random House Publishing Group
Publication date:
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Product dimensions:
5.20(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.55(d)

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Chapter I

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.”

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