When The Finch Rises: A Novel by Jack RiggsWhen The Finch Rises: A Novel by Jack Riggs

When The Finch Rises: A Novel

byJack Riggs

Paperback | August 31, 2004

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“[A] deeply satisfying portrait of a troubled family [that] conjures up the mysteries of a mill town summer, vividly depicting the lights and shadows of ordinary events and horrors.”—The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
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.
Praise for When the Finch Rises

“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

“Jack Riggs has brought to life two of the most memorable characters I’ve met in a long while. . . . Like a contemporary Tom and Huck, this pair is graced with a keen wit and eye for humor, keeping the reader in that precarious position of not knowing whether to laugh or cry. Riggs’s ability to find and hold that balance is remarkable. When the Finch Rises is compelling and moving–a stunning debut.”—Jill McCorkle
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 C...
Title:When The Finch Rises: A NovelFormat:PaperbackProduct dimensions:272 pages, 8 × 5.2 × 0.55 inShipping dimensions:8 × 5.2 × 0.55 inPublished:August 31, 2004Publisher:Random House Publishing GroupLanguage:English

The following ISBNs are associated with this title:

ISBN - 10:0345468198

ISBN - 13:9780345468192


Read from the Book

Chapter IThe 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.”

Bookclub Guide

1. What is the significance of the title When the Finch Rises?2. Do you think the setting of the novel is symbolic? Could this story have taken place somewhere else?3. Commenting on how Evelyn’s illness drives him crazy, Ray says of their home and their lives, “Ain’t much choice here, is there?” What effect does choice have on each character in the novel? Do you think fate plays a role as well?4. How do you think the photograph of Rodney Small’s lynching affects Raybert and Palmer? Would it be better if they had never seen the photograph?5. Ray “remained in love with Momma through it all. He just never knew what he was supposed to do when she became ill.” What are the limits of love in the novel? How do the characters express their love?6. Some very specific historical and social events are mentioned in the novel. How do they advance the novel’s plot? What do they reveal about the characters?7. When Palmer and Raybert visit the place where Rodney Small was lynched, they witness something no one else seems to experience at that time, the return of the finches to Finch Creek. After they experience the amazing flight of the finches, Palmer states, “I think this whole show might be Rodney Small thanking us for just coming out here and looking around. Maybe he’s saying don’t worry about me anymore.” What does this experience have to do with their feelings about the lynching? How does this reflect the theme of redemption and forgiveness in the novel?8. Why does Ray plant a new lawn for Evelyn? As Evelyn watches Ray work on the new lawn, she waits “silently for him to fail.” Why do you think he fails throughout the novel? Is Ray a character that you sympathize with? Why or why not?9. Inez Palmer’s lover Edgar calls Raybert and Palmer “faggots” when he discovers them hiding in Palmer’s closet. What role does sexual ambiguity and identity play in the novel? How would you describe Raybert and Palmer’s friendship?10. Raybert stays with Aunt Iris and Uncle Clewell for over a month. Do you think this visit adds to or detracts from the novel’s plot? Why?11. Why is Palmer so upset at Raybert when he shoots and kills the finch with his new BB gun? After Raybert kills the finch, he apologizes to Palmer, who comments, “It’s in your blood. You can’t do nothing about it. Just don’t do it again or you might not be able to stop.” What does he mean? What role does physical violence play in the novel?12. Do you think Palmer’s birthmark is symbolic? Of what?13. What do you think of Raybert’s mother? Is she a likeable character? Why or why not?14. What is the symbolic significance of Raybert’s finally making the bicycle jump at the end of the novel? Do you think the story has a happy ending? Why or why not?

Editorial Reviews

“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