Friday, June 04, 2004

Southern Living

How I ever got through college and my multitude of literature by women classes without ever having read Flannery O'Connor, I will never know. Is she one of those out of fashion authors or something? If she is I don't understand why. This woman is a genius at the short story. I normally don't like books of short stories. Why that is I'm not sure. One story on its own is fine, but an entire book of them? Short stories seem to be the thing these days. It is almost as if it is a requirement for first time novelists to have written and published short stories before they are allowed to venture into noveldom. What's up with that? Especially since I've heard that short stories don't generally sell that well. Or has this changed and I'm behind the times? But I digress. O'Connor's A Good Man is Hard to Find is my book group's current read. Will my fellow groupies think ill of me if I crow and say this fine book was my suggestion? They have been oddly quiet, so perhaps they didn't like the book as much as I did? If you are an O'Connor virgin as I was, might I recommend this book to you? I will try to explain why A Good Man is so, well, good. I can't say that I have read a wide selection of what might be called southern fiction, but for some reason I expect it to be genteel. Why this is I don't know. I blame Gone With the Wind and the Ya-Yas. O'Connor is no genteel southern lady offering you a mint julep on the porch of her plantation. She writes about the folks who are trying to make ends meet. She writes about the people that don't have much in the way of book learning. Her stories are not sweet. They are harsh and sometimes brutal. They are delightfully shocking and unexpected. The stories are domestic and mostly rural. The stuff of every day life. The stories are consistently well written, so much so that it is hard to say that one is better than the others. I cannot say "I liked this story best" but I can say I was most affected by "The Artificial Nigger". Mr. Head is an old man. He has for the most part raised his grandson himself, alone. Now they are going to Atlanta for the day. Mr. Head is taking Nelson to the city in hopes that he will find it so overwhelming and horrible that he will never want to leave their small town. Needless to say, the trip does not go well. They end up lost and in the wrong part of town. They panic and Mr. Head does a terrible thing and the trust a child has for an elder is betrayed. But there comes a moment of redemption:

Mr. Head had never known before what mercy felt like because he had been too good to deserve any, but he felt he knew now. He looked at Nelson and understood that he must say something to the child to show that he was still wise and in the look the boy returned he saw a hungry need for that assurance. Nelson's eyes seemed to implore him to explain once and for all the mystery of existence.
For me that so perfectly captures the moment in every child's life (and parent's) when she realizes that her parents are not gods but still wants them and needs them to be. One of O'Connor's greatest skills it seems to me is describing people. In "The River", one of the main characters, a boy, is looking at a photograph of an old man "whose eyebrows dashed out of two bushes of hair and clashed in a heap on the bridge of his nose; the rest of his face stuck out like a bare cliff to fall from." And in "Good Country People": "...and the large hulking Joy, whose constant outrage had obliterated every expression from her face, would stare just a little to the side of her, her eyes icy blue, with the look of someone who has achieved blindness by an act of will and means to keep it." You can't get better than that. It is unfortunate that O'Connor died of lupus in 1964 when she was only 39. I can only imagine what she might have done if she had a long life. The stories in A Good Man is Hard to Find were so enjoyable that I plan on reading her other stories and try her novels too. If you are looking for information about Flannery O'Connor, try Comforts of Home, a sort of O'Connor clearinghouse. And if you, like me, are not a short story reader, give O'Connor a try anyway. You'll be glad you did. Guaranteed.