Faith after Defeat: Voice in Tony Early’s “Charlotte”

Erin Piemont

Erin Piemont is from Charlotte, North Carolina. She plans to pursue a degree in English. On campus, Erin works in the Writing Center as a tutor and is a member of Rusk Eating House. Her interests include literature, creative writing, and visual art. Her essay was composed for Professor Mills’ Literature of the American South course.

In his short story, “Charlotte,” Tony Earley shapes an image of a town that is built on illusions, a place that cannot live up to its residents’ expectations. The nameless narrator of this story is disillusioned by the city of Charlotte’s loss of its professional wrestling scene and a subsequent loss of the illusion of attaining hope and love. The narrator previously adopts as his own the voice of Lord Poetry, a wrestler who turns to the writing of Yeats and Shakespeare in his own speech. In the wake of the failure of Lord Poetry’s romanticism in the Final Battle for Love, though, the narrator still maintains a hopeful belief in love even with the knowledge of its futility. This irony in his voice serves to lament Charlotte’s lost grandeur and still carry the illusion of the possibility of love in his relationship with his girlfriend, Starla, that Earley’s story suggests is a dream easier to support by vain faith than to relinquish.

Even in Earley’s descriptions of Charlotte’s prime, an air of superficiality hangs over the town and clouds residents’ views of the town’s reality. The narrator begins his lament with images of the wrestlers themselves: men cloaked in masks and given absurd stage names. He sees in Charlotte a similar illusory image, which he articulates when he says, “In the old days our heroes were as superficial as we were–but we knew that–and their struggles were exaggerated versions of our own.”1 The narrator goes on to note the tendency of everyone in Charlotte to “[try] to be something they were not,” and in this sense, the residents wear costumes and masks just as the wrestlers do.2 The city’s external magnificence is no longer capable of providing Charlotte with hope.

Earley’s Charlotte is a somewhat artificial place, its true identity hiding behind appearances; similarly, Earley’s use of professional wrestling to mirror the narrator’s wrestling with his relationship uncovers the fact that his own voice hides behind Lord Poetry’s. The narrator turns to Lord Poetry for advice in his fight to coerce Starla to Tf3ukQHEaIpLl_SJEDAS8noTZAiHluXKNt1YWhZcMB8-300x169 Faith after Defeat: Voice in Tony Early's "Charlotte"admit that she loves him, and in response, Lord Poetry recites a verse from Yeats. Yeats’ lines detail the “weary-hearted[ness]” of one couple fighting to attain “the old high way of love,” and the narrator eventually concludes that these words “are just too true to ever say out loud.”3 Lord Poetry’s voice, which hinges on the voices of great writers of the past, uncovers for the narrator a truth in his own relationship with Starla.  In this sense, the narrator is relying on another voice (one that, in turn, is formed by voices from the past) to discover his own.

Lord Poetry’s performance in the Final Battle for Love further reflects the narrator’s parallel battle with Starla. The tension between Lord Poetry and his wrestling rival, Bob Noxious, in the fight to win the grand prize, the love of Darling Donnis, stands as a metaphor for the clash of love and lust in his relationship with Starla. Darling Donnis’ love is for Lord Poetry, but she is “mesmerized by Bob Noxious’ animal power,” so this staged battle between love and lust metaphorically indicates who will win between Starla and the narrator.4 During the Final Battle, Lord Poetry’s last desperate effort to win Darling Donnis’ affection is to read Shakespeare’s “Sonnet Number Eighteen,” but even his urgency-laced reading of this romantic verse cannot stop Darling Donnis from giving into her lust for Bob Noxious. The narrator and Starla are mere spectators to this disappointing battle, but he watches quietly as she cries out for Darling Donnis to resist Lord Poetry’s attempts, claiming that “he’s after [her] soul.”5 Starla, then, views this battle as a symbol for her victory in the relationship, which she finds to be loveless.

Lord Poetry’s failure and the narrator’s subsequent personal loss disillusion him, but not to such an extent that he gives up all hope. He takes on the duty to speak for Charlotte’s lost era of glory, when not everyone had “given up on love” like Starla has.6 Even once the professional wrestlers leave Charlotte, the narrator feels compelled to adopt Lord Poetry’s voice as his own. He articulates his remaining (albeit somewhat futile) hope when he writes that “in the old days Lord Poetry said to never give up, to always fight for love, but now he is gone to Atlanta with a big contract and a broken heart, and I have to do the best that I can.”7 Even though Starla denies him the loving relationship he craves, he “hold[s] on” to the idea of attainable love.8

The structure of “Charlotte” also highlights the strength of the narrator’s vain hope against the disappointing aftermath of the Final Battle for Love. From the beginning of the story, the narrator lets readers know that Lord Poetry’s cause is lost. He creates a current of loss by repeating the word “gone” in the opening paragraphs, signaling his own battle for love will result in a heavy loss. The narrator describes the bar he works in as a place in which “people look vainly. . .for love,” indicating that a part of him even sees the futility in this pursuit.”9 He also questions how to “tell somebody how to find what they’re looking for when ten years ago you came from the same place, and have yet to find yourself”10 These sentiments express a shattered illusion of Charlotte in the narrator’s eyes, and yet he “holds on” to his and Lord Poetry’s romantic vision.

Lord Poetry’s failure and the narrator’s subsequent personal loss disillusion him, but not to such an extent that he gives up all hope. He takes on the duty to speak for Charlotte’s lost era of glory, when not everyone had “given up on love” like Starla has.

The narrator’s voice carries in it what has vanished from Charlotte. Even in his seemingly futile telling of Lord Poetry’s fated loss, he makes concrete the facts of Charlotte’s old grandeur that have disappeared. In taking on this responsibility in his voice, he is speaking for everyman, every resident of Charlotte who felt this loss. Ironically, though, his voice is the last vehicle standing that is willing to preserve the town he once knew. For the narrator, it seems his old image of Charlotte is muchTf3ukQHEaIpLl_SJEDAS8noTZAiHluXKNt1YWhZcMB8-300x169 Faith after Defeat: Voice in Tony Early's "Charlotte" easier to cling to than let fade. His inclination to hide behind Charlotte’s now broken illusions is exemplified in the fact that although she “breaks [his] heart,” he fights the endless fight to force Starla to love him.11 Although he sees that newcomers to Charlotte “must settle for much smaller hopes” than those with which they arrived, he refuses to see a similar fruitlessness in his pursuit of love.12

In the same way that Yeats’ verse is “just too true to ever say out loud,” the narrator finds the notion of letting go of the hope of finally drawing true love out of his relationship with Starla too heartbreaking. ((Ibid., 39.) An impossible balance of disenchantment and faith exists in his voice. With these seemingly incompatible qualities, the narrator weaves a story of a loss so great it is joined by a degree of disbelief. In “Charlotte,” Earley ultimately reminds his readers that some dreams–no matter how improbable–aren’t easily abandoned. The narrator and Charlotte’s parallel losses expose a degree of masquerading both he and the city previously performed. A shattered illusion, though sometimes a thing too difficult to see.


Earley, Tony. “Charlotte.” In Here We Are in Paradise. New York: Little, Brown, 1994.



  1. Tony Earley, “Charlotte,” in Here We Are in Paradise, (New York: Little, Brown, 1994): 35. []
  2. Ibid. []
  3. Ibid., 38. []
  4. Ibid., 47. []
  5. Ibid., 54. []
  6. Ibid., 36. []
  7. Ibid. []
  8. Ibid. []
  9. Ibid., 39. []
  10. Ibid., 41. []
  11. Ibid., 36. []
  12. Ibid., 41. []