Immense talent gone so soon.

Immense talent gone far too soon.

A Good Man is Hard to Find and Other Stories

  • Author:  Flannery O’Connor  (1925-1964)
  • Published:  1955
  • Publisher:  Harcourt, Brace
  • Pages:  251
  • First Line:  “The grandmother didn’t want to go to Florida.”
  • Last Line:  “He came regularly once a week with a bag of breadcrumbs and, after he had fed these to the peacock, he would come in and sit by the side of her bed and explain the doctrines of the Church.”
  • Film Version:  television adaptation of one of the stories in 1957; short film of one of the stories in 1993
  • First Read:  Fall, 1995

Last month, the Atlantic ran a piece by James Parker (a constant shopper at the Booksmith and a very nice man) about the “new” Flannery O’Connor book.  I put the word in parenthesis because it’s the release of O’Connor’s Prayer Journal, a remarkable document that shows the development of her writing in her early 20’s and also its relation to her deeply rooted Catholic beliefs.  It is evidence of both the darkness at the heart of O’Connor’s writing and the immense talent with which she went forward into fiction writing.  Reading what James had to say (“Her short stories, especially, reengineered the Joycean epiphany, the quiet moment of transcendence, as a kind of blunt-force baptismal intervention: her characters are KO’d, dismantled, with a violence that would be absurdist, if the universe were absurd.”) reminded me that while I had devoured all of O’Connor when I was in college, it had been a very long time since I had gone back to it.  Far too long for a writer this talented.  So, with my piece on Interpreter of Maladies having just been written, I was in the mood for another great American short-story writer and I dived back in.

I was immediately reminded of the grotesque, violent characters that inhabit her work.  I don’t mean grotesque as an insult, but as a term to describe those characters who are outside the realm of the everyday, the literary inheritance of Sherwood Anderson in the opening pages of Winesburg, Ohio.  And O’Connor dove head-on into that notion, with a very self-perceptive piece called “The Grotesque in Southern Fiction”, which can be found in her Library of America Collected Works.  “I am always having it point out to me that life in Georgia is not at all the way I picture it,” she writes, “that escaped criminals do not roam the roads exterminating families, nor Bible salesmen prowl about looking for girls with wooden legs.”  It is certainly not that way in the life that most of us interact with, but in the fiction of Flannery O’Connor these things do come alive, in amazing and violent and even humorous ways.

We can start with the title story.  It is probably one of the most famous American short stories of the twentieth century, anthologized almost everywhere you look and taught in college courses all over the place.  It’s the story of an overbearing mother who has beaten down her son emotionally and whose insistence on following her faulty memory leads the family, while on a vacation, to take a side jaunt that ends with the escaped criminals mentioned by O’Connor above.  It is her inability to stop talking that ends up dooming them, her need to tell the story that sends them down the road, her need to shriek out that she has recognized The Misfit, the leader of the desperate criminals and a man, who, once recognized, will not let them leave alive.  The story, at this point a dark portrayal of a badly aging Southern belle, now becomes a dark, twisted, violent trail, with death at the end of it, though, most of the deaths happen off stage.  But when she insists on trying to make a human connection to The Misfit and touches him “The Misfit sprang back as if a snake had bitten him and shot her three times through the chest.  Then he put his gun down on the ground and took off his glasses and began to clean them.”  But it doesn’t end there, because we do have that dark sense of humor that was the calling card of O’Connor, that could be seen in the almost anti-O Henry twists she would give her stories, dark sudden turns that reminded us of the fate we long to strive against and cannot beat back.  We get the Misfit’s final word on the life he has just taken: “She would of been a good woman if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life.”

If the rest of the stories were fairly readable, still the power of the title story would make this a worthwhile collection.  But it doesn’t let up.  We have the other story that O’Connor references above, “Good County People”, in which a Bible salesman romances a woman with a wooden leg.  Of course, in O’Connor’s world, he’s part of the grotesque – a man who hides liquor, cards and condoms in a hollowed out Bible and who is romancing the woman so that he can steal the leg when she’s got it off.  There is “The Life You Save May Be Your Own” in which a drifter fixes up an old woman’s car and says he will fix up her house and she convinces him to marry her developmentally delayed daughter, only to have him abandon the daughter at a diner on the honeymoon and drive off with the car: “After a few minutes there was a guffawing peal of thunder from behind and fantastic raindrops, like tin-can tops, crashed over the rear of Mr. Shiftlet’s car.  Very quickly he stepped on the gad and with his stump sticking out the window he raced the galloping shower into Mobile.”

And, as James points out in his article, the Catholicism at O’Connor’s heart is never very far from the words she puts on the page.  Look at the end of “A Circle in the Fire”, a story that hearkens back to the Book of Daniel: “She stood taut, listening, and could just catch in the distance a few wild high shrieks of joy as if the prophets were dancing in the fiery furnace, in the circle the angel had cleared for them.”

O’Connor was a tremendously gifted writer, giving us two very good novels (Wise Blood will eventually be covered in my Best Adapted Screenplay series when I get to 1979) and two magnificent short story collections.  The other collection, Everything That Rises Must Converge (a magnificent title – she was great with titles) is almost as good as A Good Man is Hard to Find and includes one of her most famous stories, “Revelation” and one of her absolute best, “The Enduring Chill.”  Yet, when she died she was only 39 years, 4 months and 8 days.  Or, only 3 months and 7 days older than I am now.  As great a loss to American literature as Stephen Crane, Frank Norris or Thomas Wolfe, all of whom died even younger, and none of whom were on the first two lists of Writers Who Died Before Age 40 that I found on Google.  So ignore those lists and read these writers whose work was cut off too soon.

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