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In the early 1970s, in Stovall, Texas, seventeen-year-old Earl—a loner, a dreamer, a lover of music and words—meets and is quickly infatuated with Tina, the new girl in town. She convinces Earl to drive her to see her mother in Austin, where, after a hazy night of partying, Earl and Tina are separated. Two days later, Earl is being questioned by the police about Tina’s disappearance and the blood in the trunk of his car. But Earl can’t remember what happened in Austin, and with little support from his working-class family, he is sentenced for a crime he did not commit.
Forty years later, Earl is released into an America so changed he can barely navigate it. Determined to have the life that was taken from him, he settles in a small town on the Oregon coast and works to overcome the emotional toll of incarceration. But just as Earl finds a chance to begin again, his past returns to endanger the new life he’s built.
Steeped in the music and atmosphere of the 1970s, I Am the Light of This World is a gritty, gripping, and gorgeously written story of the impulsive choices of youth, redemption, mercy, and the power of the imagination.
Stovall, Texas, 1973
Because Earl’s clothes were line-dried, they smelled of sun, grass, earth. But the girls on the bus said he smelled like creek mud. The girls were even meaner in the winter when he wore parkas donated by the Kiwanis Club coats-for-kids drive, easily recognized by the fake fur collars, which reeked of the kerosene used to heat their house.
At home, his family treated him like a second cousin much removed. “Oh, look, Earl,” they’d say after he’d been sitting quietly in a room for a half hour. He was seventeen and did not mind being unseen, but he knew he was creek mud to them, too. And so he refused their offer of a snack of celery filled with peanut butter and dotted with raisins, because, seriously? Ants on a log?
Into the smoke from neighbors burning their trash in rusty barrels slipped Earl, on the lookout for someone to whom he might define himself. But he always ended up in the woods, listening to the transistor radio his father had given him, or reading aloud from the biography of Lead Belly he carried with him always.
His people were proud Louisianans who’d moved, for reasons unknown to Earl, across the border to Stovall, Texas. His father was vaguely around. His mother talked all the time to her sisters in Bossier City, installing a twenty-foot cord on the telephone so she could sit outside on the front stoop and smoke and ask her sisters about the fates of various men she might have married instead.
Prison, preacherman, gay, career military, Port Arthur were the answers Earl imagined coming across the line. “Shoo now, Earl,” said his mother when she caught him snooping.
Earl had two brothers, two years older: Cary and Larry, identical twins. They were sly and slow-eyed. When they were young, all three boys wore striped T-shirts and crew cuts. Therein ended the likeness. Now, his brothers rode their banana bikes cock-legged, hips jutting as they looped surly circles down the street, talking sideways to each other in a language both unique and precociously foul. They spent most of their time heckling Cedric Drawhorn, who had been beat in the head with a tommy gun during the Korean War and thereafter walked the streets shooing imaginary swarms of gnats from his head.
Earl liked to believe his family were not bad people. Nobody ever beat him with a garden hose. His brothers were technically juvenile delinquents—they put out the eye of a neighborhood boy with a slingshot and dropped bricks from overpasses onto only Winnebagos—but aspects of their choices could be intriguing. They wore cutoff blue jeans year-round. They sheared off the pant legs in a zigzagged pattern that impressed Earl, even as he struggled to understand it.
His father, when he worked, laid pipe or worked in the oilfields. He claimed to be Acadian but his mother said he was out of Lawton, Oklahoma. She once told Earl that their last name was “assumed,” adding that this didn’t bother her because Boudreaux sounded better than Miller, which she’d spent her first seventeen years hating. Wherever his father was from, his brothers and cousins soon arrived in Stovall and a compound of trailers and vehicles sanded down to primer or missing bumpers or outright wrecked beyond repair sprung up in the piney woods on the outskirts of town. Earl’s father once took him on a walk through the woods to a pond, where he taught him the words to “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry.” Even when his father disappeared for weeks, Earl had his transistor radio, on which his father claimed to have listened to stations out of Fort Wayne, Indiana, and Matamoros, Mexico, when he was a boy in his bed at night. Was there anything in the world more romantic than listening to radio stations from other countries illicitly after lights-out?
Yes there sure was, and Earl came one day to hear it on some old forty-five of his father’s. Earl couldn’t even remember who was singing or about what. He just remembered lying on the floor watching the warped vinyl hiccup and here came an ample solo of what he would learn was pure pedal steel. Earl felt draped by a blanket and shocked by a cattle prod. The pedal steel both softened and sharpened. Say you were a river. Say there was no wind. Still river equaled words set to music written out flat on a page. Now add pedal steel. Wing it in on a westerly breeze. Hear the plaintive shiver of leaves through trees lining the bank.
Pedal steel could turn a song into what, Earl didn’t know, your heart struggling to stay in rhythm and burst out of you at the same time? Trying to define it made Earl feel foolish and that is how he knew it was true. He would die trying and that is how he knew it was true.
Earl walked the outskirts of town, past tire shops that sold only retreads, stores that claimed to repair sewing machines. The air smelled of bacon grease, gasoline, and pine resin. Paths snaked off into the piney woods, beer cans and castaway underpants lining the trail instead of the breadcrumbs of phony fables.
On his walks he often ran into street lurkers: Moonwalk, Sleepy T., Burnt Cheese.
“Hey, ho, Earl, what’s the good word?”
“The blue light was my baby, the red light was my mind,” said Earl, a line he’d heard his father sing while shaving.
Often he would see these same men later in his backyard on nights his daddy was in town. They gathered there to listen to music by their shed, its wormy chestnut walls painted by the day’s last slant of yellow. They favored what Earl dubbed the negative adjectival: if a man did not have a light, he was one no-pack-of-matches-having sapsucker. Earl liked to listen to them argue over what was worse. He never heard them argue about what was better. On into the night they would argue, while the world turned black and white and branches in shadow clawed at the walls of the shed, though only Earl seemed to notice.
Was he put on earth to notice? He saw a Band-Aid stuck to the bottom of a swimming pool. Once he’d seen it, he couldn’t not. He saw it in the sky while floating on his back, watching grackles chase each other from the limbs of a live oak to the top of a telephone pole. Between the live oak and the telephone pole, a Band-Aid the size of a jumbo jet, wavy in the manner of items on the bottoms of pools. He saw a grocery cart come not to rest at the bottom of a roadside culvert and its eternal restlessness did not unnerve him. It was no blight, unlike the music played on the radio, 97 percent garbage food from a chain store. Nor did the lone shoe in the median bring on a bout of melancholy. Most would consign to this sight only loss; Earl saw independence, freedom, escape.
On his walks he collected scraps of sun-dyed paper dancing leaflike across lawns. Grocery lists; receipts from the gas station; on a lucky day, love notes. All he had to do was bend to pluck the paper and sometimes scrape dried mud to read the words. Sometimes the paper was stiff from having been soaked by what Earl believed to be tears. Here came the sun to dry off and preserve the better part of it, send it on to Earl. Baby why you do me like you do me? Darling are you really only fifteen? Meet me at the fiddler’s convention outside Alexandria. As he read them he heard his aunts recounting the fates of his mother’s might-have-marrieds.
Other people’s messages: on index cards filed in a plastic box, he wrote them down, along with other phrases, some he’d found in books he checked out from the Stovall library and some he overheard on his walks. As for other people themselves, well: he welcomed their company, but he preferred to talk to himself.
“I am the light of this world,” he told himself, because he had heard it said in a song. “I am good at stripes. I can recognize the four basic face shapes, I can hum the minor-key melodies that accompany movie credits playing in my head.”
“Well, let me ask you this, Earl,” replied a voice celestial but garbled by a passing logging truck. “Can you be not good at No and not terribly good at Yes?”
“But of course you can if you want to please everybody by going along for the ride. Just pat your pockets for your forgotten wallet when the car rolls up to the gas pump.”
Days after they met, Tina would say to Earl: “I always think of when in school we studied various origin stories. From many cultures worldwide. I don’t know what month it was but maybe November because there was rain and leaves falling out of the sky, and I was somehow able to stare outside at the wet leaves sticking to the sidewalk waiting to be carried away on the bottom of somebody’s shoe and listen to how a certain Native American tribe believed an eagle dropped the first two of them—their Adam and Eve—into this sacred valley. The valley was in the desert, but it was also blue or maybe turquoise with some streaks of silver. I was really into it until this girl Sharon raised her hand and said, ‘How’s that different from the whole stork thing?’ And the teacher said, ‘What stork thing?’ And Sharon said her mother told her that a stork delivered her and her brother and sister and the teacher said, ‘That’s not really an origin story as much as it is a euphemism.’ And then Sharon’s mouth fell open in a slack ‘Say what?’ position that was pretty much its normal position and the teacher took pity on her and said—instead of, ‘Your mother does not think you are mature enough to know how to get down’—‘Does your mother believe our civilization arose out of stork deliveries?’ By civilization she meant the white people of Texas because she was a racist bitch, her idea of created equal was to let a Black or brown kid beat the erasers clean on a tree once a semester, and Sharon said, ‘Um, yeah, she does?’”
Earl and Tina were in the woods not far from where they had first come upon each other. Deep silence alternated with the gunshots of offseason poachers and the buzzing of illegal sawmills. Tina did not need to spell out what all this had to do with Earl. Earl knew she would not mind switching out their origin story.
But Earl treasured the way they found each other because it was so normal as to be unbelievable. One day Earl was sitting on a log in the woods reading Lead Belly: His Life and Times when Tina appeared.
She was freckly and appeared tall, though it was true Earl was sitting low on a log. Her hair might have made it to her shoulders had it not twisted away in curlicues that made Earl think of ribbon and also smoke. She was bony. He thought of a line from his other favorite book, Satchmo, the authorized biography of Louis Armstrong, wherein Satchmo described a slender woman as being “raggedy as a bowl of cole slaw.” And yet Tina glowed with a rare pale energy.
“Read me some of that book,” she said by way of greeting.
Earl read from the section where Lead Belly was freed from prison due to his astonishing musical ability. When he was done, Tina said, “I know this guy from Brazil. Soccer player, only he calls it football.”
Earl did not see why, if a famous folklorist discovering raw genius in the cotton fields of Angola evoked a memory of a Brazilian soccer player, he ought not to be able to skip the interminably awkward chitchat he knew was up next and go straight not just to necking but love. He was planning his move when Tina started telling him about going to see Leon Russell in Houston.
“There were so many thousands gathered, of all walks of life, singing ‘Delta Lady.’ I guess you could say it was really something.”
She sang into the silence of the woods, between gunshots and chainsaws, “‘Please don’t ask how many times I found you / standing wet and naked in the garden.’”
Earl said he would never ask such a question. He did ask her, in an attempt at chitchat, or rather a land speed record at getting such chitchat out of the way, what scared her.
“School nurses. Cuckoo clocks.”
Not the most original primal fears but at least not cave crickets or spelunking. She sat down beside him on the log and told him to keep on reading and he did, but the words were delivered as if by stork, for he was discovering what he would always love about Tina: he could be with her and also elsewhere. For instance: in a sunken field he once passed on the way down to the gulf. Late winter and cloudy. Standing water in the furrows of roadside fields. A tractor disking black earth, a string of gulls in tow. All Tina had to do was be Tina for Earl to remember a booth he favored in a diner at the edge of town. Duct tape covered a rip in the Naugahyde. The seat cushion was so worn, the springs so long shot, that the space between it and the back of the booth nipped sweetly at Earl’s buttocks.
Earl shared with Tina his love of pedal steel. Tina said she favored a Hammond organ. Why, he asked, and she was ready with the answer: Because I like to roller skate backwards.
Only later did Earl learn she was from Navasota. Her father had sent her to live with his sister in Stovall after her mother got committed to the state hospital in Austin. That was all he knew about her for the longest time. Talk fell off when they went to kissing. Earl thought, while kissing Tina, of pressure washers powered by air compressors. And he thought of snowflakes, and sought a compromise, with his lips, between the two.
Turtles sunned themselves on shore. Their indifference to budding love was annoying and noteworthy.
Earl took Tina night swimming. Her skin felt like velvet, but in an oil slick.
“What do you see yourself doing in five years?” Tina asked Earl as he held her in the dark water.
The question put Earl in the mind of mathematics, of outer space. Yet he had some idea of where he would not be at age twenty-two. When he was still in grade school he had decided that, much as he loved the country, and maybe because he loved the country, the country was no good for him. If you tended toward melancholy, the country—its cornfields raspy in the autumn wind, and its line of woods in the distance beyond the fields, the shadowy mouths of those woods as bloodred as the mouths of love singers he had watched on television, contorting with microphones, their love wracking their bodies with seizures, wacko love about to strike them dead on stage—the country whispered secrets. According to the country, love was dark and wet and deceitful.
“You first,” he said, thinking of the far future, the last of his days, which he would spend in some city high-rise reserved for elderly swimmers, with a view of water and of afternoon storms rolling in from the west and lights blinking on at dusk.
“My friend Alicia goes out with one of the roadies from ZZ Top,” said Tina. She said she was going to go to Houston and get her GED and live in an apartment with Alicia, who didn’t have to work because the roadie floated her from his roadie money plus what he made selling pot to high school students, which is how he met Alicia.
“I guess I’ll get work at a water park,” said Tina, but Earl hardly heard her because he had a vision of the future. A ferry crossed a river. It docked at an abandoned shipyard. Tugboats rusted at a tilt, as if listing in surf, in waist-high sea oat. Only Earl knew how to get there, by back road.
“You can come with us,” Tina was saying. “Alicia goes on the road with the band sometimes.”
In the future Earl would have no body at all. He would hear the voice of his beloved everywhere—in sirens, the cries of seagulls circling the abandoned shipyard—and he would be without vertebra or even cartilage. He would be a note slurred by a trumpet muted with a balled-up pair of tube socks. But who was this beloved?
“My father told me Tres Hombres was recorded just up the road in Tyler,” said Earl.
“I think not,” said Tina.
“Maybe not, then,” said Earl, though he was pretty sure his father would not lie about ZZ Top. He might lie if he had another family in Arkansas, but not about Tres Hombres.
“I’m glad I’m not scared of things I can’t see in the water in the night,” said Tina.
She pushed herself out of his embrace and swam away from him. She wanted him to follow and he did, underwater, his arms extended, pretending to be a school nurse holding a cuckoo clock.
Tina needed to get home to her aunt. Her aunt was respectable and Methodist and probably lesbian according to Tina.
“At the very least a thirty-eight-year-old virgin,” Tina said. They had dried off and were lying in the sun on a bedspread by the water. “My life would open up in astounding ways if only she would take a secret lover. I don’t care male or female, just so long as she had something to do besides me.”
“Why does the lover need to be a secret?” Earl asked.
“She couldn’t just up and start dating at her ancient age. He would have to be married or a she.”
“My mother can’t stand her,” said Tina. “She never cared for any of my father’s people. My mother is from Houston and she eloped with my father against the wishes of her family. Now where are they? He’s gone and locked my mother up in the bin.”
“Maybe we can go see her,” said Earl.
“Oh really, Earl, can we?” Tina said, scooting close. She spoke in the theatrical manner of an actress in a grainy movie from the forties you could only see on a television when you were home sick from school and there was a lull in game shows. Though his mother loved these movies. The women in them all wore boxy-shouldered dresses and wavy hair and they made his mother cry when they said things at once desperate and vulnerable.
“Oh can we please?” Tina was saying. “Would you do that, would you do that for me?”
“I can borrow a car from a cousin. I have about twenty-three, give or take. Between them they have enough vehicles to put the Stovall Christmas parade to shame.”
The first time Earl brought Tina around to the shed where the lurkers sat passing bottles and joints, Burnt Cheese said, “Hold up now, there goes our boy Earl, stepping out and stepping up!”
There had followed elaborate introductions from each, ranging from Hey Little Mama I am pleased to acquaint myself to yourself, they call me Sleepy T but you can call my hotline anytime to Earl is our special one and only pearl so go easy now Tiger Lily, treat him royal, etc.
To escape the scrutiny (which Tina did not seem to mind) Earl led her away from the shed and into the house, down the back hallway, where he pulled down the folding stairs to the attic. He wanted her to see his safest place: his treasured eaves. Because the attic darkened at its sloped edges and those edges in their endless shadow suggested to Earl not only the world beyond his world but the very curve of the earth, he had spent hours here, having strange thoughts: that he would spend his last days in a city high-rise watching the plumes of passing airplanes imitate clouds; that, should he live where it snowed and it snowed, he wanted only to think, well, it’s snowing, just that, without wondering or caring whether it was a good thing or not, snow.
“Are there any dressmaker’s dummies up here?” Tina asked. “In movies, old attics like these are full of dressmaker’s dummies. Oh man I forgot to tell you Alicia told me about going to this ranch with her roadie boyfriend, some filthy rich guy who hired the band to play his private pool party for like thousands and they all got high and rich dude took them all up to the top floor of this barn where you’re supposed to store hay bales and it was filled with piñatas hanging from the rafters and the piñatas were filled with pills.”
“No way,” said Earl, staring at the hypotenuse extending into infinity. He used to come here hunting silence. If it was not to be found—if his mother was outside yelling into the phone at one of her sisters so loudly it was coming through the vents for the attic fan, if his brothers were downstairs bragging, if the noise of the record player terrorized his quiet—if phone ring, if floorboard creak, if bird song—he waited. And when silence came, it was a showering of cotton balls come to bury him. He lay himself down to sleep in it.
But now he wanted Tina to see what he saw in the sloping shadows.
“It’s hot up here,” said Tina.
Earl pointed to the corners, and explained, as best he could, his mysterious eaves.
Tina put her fingers in his belt loops and pulled him to her.
“Are we about to slow dance?” said Earl.
“Better,” said Tina, and she kissed his neck and said, “You see everything, don’t you, Earl. That is why I can’t stand it when you go away. I just sit around and look out a window and think, what would Earl see that I don’t? And how does he see all that when’s he not even high?”
Sometimes they did get high on the dirt weed his brothers hid, badly, beneath a brickbat out by the shed. He watched them hide it, from the woods one day. His crazy-mean brothers: they would kill him if they saw him spying from the woods when they stashed the baggies they carried in their underwear, certain that no cop would pat down their crotch. He was careful to pinch only enough to roll a scrawny joint. Earl could only feel it if he put his head under some pond water and breathed bubbles, but Tina got all glassy-eyed and laughed into hiccups at a twig tangled up in Earl’s hair. Either she wanted to be high so bad the very ritual of it got her off, or the grass worked on parts of her that Earl did not have.
He fell hard in love with those parts. They were inexhaustible and Earl believed they would always be, for his love was high hope as much as lie down and die. Sometimes, though, he felt more of the latter when she was over at her aunt’s looking out the window trying to see what he might see.
One day after he’d brought Tina home several times, his mother found him sitting under a tree with Lead Belly: His Life and Times.
“So where did y’all meet?”
“In the pines,” said Earl.
His mother sighed her once-I-had-aspirations sigh. “I guess that’s just what happens when forced to raise children in the wild,” she said.
“Where did you meet dad?”
“He’s just always been there.”
“You knew him when you were little?”
“We were little when we got together if little means how old y’all are now which by the way that is exactly what little means.”
“I like her hair,” said Earl’s mother. “What she’s up to with it and all.”
“She doesn’t believe in those blow dryers. Something about carcinogenic.”
“She seems a little odd? Baby, I know I can say that to you. I know you won’t hate me for it like your brothers would if I were to say something about the trash they string around with, which why bother? I like her, Earl, but have you noticed that when she speaks it’s like she’s all of a sudden been given the lead in some musical? Except she can’t sing?”
Earl said no, but he meant, well, yes. Or he meant, actually, she can sing, just off key and a little too loud.
His mother said, “I wouldn’t know her people because I am not from this godforsaken town but who is she?”
“She’s from Navasota. She came here to stay with her aunt.”
“Her parents sent her off? What did she do?”
“She didn’t do anything. Her mother is in the hospital.”
“Oh dear. Poor girl. I take it all back. Except about the hair.”
“The hospital is in Austin. I want to take Tina to see her.”
“That’s nice. Your father seems to like to go to Austin instead of to the oilfields where he is meant to go. I have no idea what he does there and I don’t think I care anymore.”
“Are you going to leave him?”
“Oh, Earl,” his mother said. “Put down your book for once.”
Earl held Lead Belly: His Life and Times tightly to his chest. It was open to a favorite passage, and he did not want to lose his place.
“Listen,” his mother said.
But she didn’t say anything. They sat listening. At first to nothing, and then to trees falling in forests. The thrum of traffic on Interstate 20, an hour north. The faint drumbeat of marching band practice in a Dallas suburb, the squawk of badly played horns ricocheting off buildings and cars.
The silence became symphonic. What they heard together was everything in the world, beyond the terrifying thump of blood in their hearts.
“Did you hear?”
“Just remember, Earl.”
“I Am the Light of This World is as true and moving a book, as honest, as gripping, as any I have ever read. I continue to be haunted by this tragic novel--its note-perfect depiction of clueless youth, its bad breaks, bad choices, bewilderments and quirks, and, above all, the small moments of mercy that give hope in the midst of a hopeless situation. How do you piece together a broken life that wasn't much in the way of whole to begin with? With a career's worth of powerhouse fiction already in the books, Michael Parker has delivered his strongest work yet. I Am the Light of This World is a novel of truly singular beauty and wisdom.”
—Ben Fountain, author of Beautiful Country Burn Again
“Earl Boudreaux, the protagonist of Michael Parker's stunning new novel is one of the great inventions in recent fiction. Watching this beautiful dreamer get lost in a netherworld where fate, and drastic human error are disastrously intertwined, I realized that “Earl” is just another word for the hopeful, hopeless, yearning, worn-out soul of America. Parker is just flat out astonishing.”
—Marisa Silver, bestselling author of Mary Coin and The Mysteries
“I Am the Light of this World is a grimy, gutsy, glorious, novel and one of my favorite books in recent memory. Somehow, Michael Parker channeled the ghosts of Kent Haruf and Harry Crews (the good angel and the bad) to write this literary gem which is as lowdown and gritty as it is graceful and profound. An unforgettable novel that sings out on every page.”
—Nickolas Butler, author of Shotgun Lovesongs and Godspeed
“A gut punch of a novel — lyrical, mordantly funny, and wrenching.”
—Kelly Link, author of Get in Trouble
“From the opening sentence on, I was transfixed, locked into the phonic level of Earl’s world and somehow magically both rooted and flying. I don’t know how Michael Parker does it. There is the rhythm of the sentences and the deep attention to sensory details but there is also something even more ineffable going on here. This novel is incredible. Read it! Read it! Read it!”
—Mesha Maren, author of Perpetual West
“Michael Parker’s latest is a haunting story of how easily life can go off the rails. This book made me thank my lucky stars on every riveting page, as it simultaneously had me outraged at the ravening gyre of uneven justice and circumstance. I Am the Light of ThisWorld finds Parker working in profundities both deeply spiritual and relevant.”
—Smith Henderson, author of Fourth of July Creek
- On Sale
- Sep 5, 2023
- Page Count
- 320 pages
- Algonquin Books