Style and Technique

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

“The Prophet from Jupiter” is developed as an intricate narrative scheme based on the flow of structured consciousness in the dam keeper’s mind. Rather than a stream of random thoughts delivered as they occur, the narration is presented as the consequence of constant reflection on the town, the lake, its history, and its inhabitants. Earley has carefully arranged details so that the mix of historical recollection and an evolving present-tense narrative displays the patterns of thought that define the dam keeper’s character. The realistic aspect of the details tends to ground the more fantastic aspects of the eccentricities displayed by both the narrator and most of the people he recalls and renders. His world is constructed out of a fusion of the mundane and the marvelous, revealing a place that is recognizable as a feature of American life and as an artistic creation teeming with symbols and emblems that operate as comments on the lives and fates of the characters.

Although the dam keeper is often opinionated and sometimes judgmental, particularly in terms of his values, his voice takes on a distinctive signature primarily through his tone of awe and even bewilderment. Cryptic comments seeded with implications like his observation that “in North Carolina, even in the mountains, it takes more than a month of your life to live through August” are typical. He is somewhat stunned by the human capacity for emotional intensity, including his own, and his generally matter-of-fact recitation of unconventional behavior does not disguise his fascination with the wild variety of responses to circumstance.

When a storm threatened to destroy the dam, Big Julie Cooper, according to accounts, shot twenty-four development company mules to reinforce the structure. Rotting mules then force workers putting a roof on the hotel to wear camphor-covered masks over their mouths until bears from the nearby mountains devour the remains, which are eventually covered with a thick growth of kudzu, the ubiquitous imported vine that has overrun considerable parts of the region. The dam keeper’s pervasive curiosity about what it all could mean, what lies beneath the surface of everything, and how he might make some sense of his life amid all the assorted phenomena provides the energy that sustains the narrative throughout the story.