Ann Napolitano pays homage to Flannery O'Connor in her remarkable -- and refreshingly offbeat -- new novel, "A Good Hard Look."
She doesn't emulate the celebrated Southern author. She re-creates her, placing Flannery O'Connor back on the Georgia farm where she spent her final years -- a prickly young woman writing while dying, ever so slowly, of lupus.
It is a ploy that could have missed but more than succeeds as Napolitano treads with grace, wit and a strong respect for history, in giving Flannery (as she is called throughout the book) a pivotal role in Napolitano's own tale of the South.
We first meet Flannery early on in the novel -- when all eyes fall upon her at the Southern nuptials of Cookie Himmel and Melvin Whiteson. Flannery, all curly hair and cat's-eye glasses, is on crutches.
"Melvin," Cookie tells her groom, "this is Flannery O'Connor. She would no doubt like me to introduce her as our town's most famous citizen."
Flannery, after insisting Cookie must mean "infamous," tells the bride and groom she would like to give them "one of my peacocks" as a wedding gift.
Those peacocks become the book's leitmotif, representing all that is fearful and beautiful, sometimes silent, sometimes loud, always sitting in judgment, seeing all and, in the end, responding.
Like Flannery, the peacocks are but one of several voices in Napolitano's novel -- set in the JFK era, chiefly in the small city of Milledgeville, Ga. Most of them are riding for a fall.
Napolitano lets their stories unfold languidly, lulling the reader with the seeming loveliness and gentility ofMilledgeville and its citizens.
But beneath it all, Cookie is single-minded in her quest to see the New York City-bred Melvin become mayor of Milledgeville, "stringing (the couple) to the fabric of Milledgeville life like a line of Christmas lights." Even the birth of their beautiful daughter, Rose, does not slow Cookie's ambition.
Melvin, at sea in the South, is questioning his place in the world -- and testing the fates with frequent visits to Flannery, against Cookie's wishes, because "he needed the mess, and the release he needed (Flannery) to comment on his life in order for his life to feel real."
"I don't want her to know anything about us," Cookie had told Melvin. "She writes about people and makes them ugly. That's what she does. It's who she is." Melvin looked surprised. "I thought she wrote fiction," he said.
There is also Lona, the quiet seamstress Cookie hires to furnish her grand new home with drapes. Lona finds herself flouting both the law and reason when she begins to act on her marijuana-fueled daydreams.
Then there is Lona's husband, Bill -- who is on the Milledgeville police force and so intent on becoming lieutenant and then chief that he takes far too little notice of Lona and their adolescent daughter, Gigi.
Finally there is Joe, another adolescent. He is Lona's summer assistant -- and a next-door neighbor to Andalusia, the ancestral farm where Flannery and her formidable mother, Regina, live, surrounded by Flannery's peacocks.
All of their lives intertwine in two cautionary tales that will become one in a single horrific moment -- a moment that explains why Napolitano has divided her novel into three sections taken from its title: GOOD, HARD and LOOK.
Perhaps a play on the title of Flannery O'Connor's short story collection, "A Good Man is Hard to Find," the words also appear in Napolitano's novel as part of a commencement address Flannery gave to Cookie's high school class: "Take a good hard look at who you are and what you have," she urged, "and then use it."
One might say that Napolitano's characters misuse what they have, thereby changing who they are -- and only after the fact, wanting to take Flannery's advice. Morality and ethics, no strangers to the real Flannery, are finally considered and, for readers who fancy redemption, it is delivered a hundredfold here.
Flannery's Catholicism, a hallmark of the writer's actual work, also plays a role in the book -- particularly in a segment in which Flannery, so traumatized by the book's horrific event, believes she has lost her faith and refuses to go to church with her mother:
"I can't live with you this way for much longer," Regina tells Flannery. Flannery looked away, out the window. "You're afraid you'll get sucked into my whirlpool? That you'll stop believing?"
She felt her mother's nod, rather than saw it This made sense to her. She could see the risk to Regina, and she could feel the extent of her own selfishness.
In an earlier segment, Flannery is taken to Lourdes by her mother, who is loath to overlook any possibility of a miracle, a cure for Flannery's lupus. (This, like the peacocks, is based on Flannery O'Connor's actual life. She also raised peafowl, and she did indeed accompany her mother to Lourdes, to bathe in the waters of the grotto where Mary, the mother of Jesus, is said to have appeared in the 1800s to a 14-year-old French girl named Bernadette.)
At Lourdes, Napolitano's Flannery tells herself, "The idea that someone can line up to bathe in a particular bathtub and expect God's healing seems a bit like putting a quarter in a pinball machine and expecting the same."
Napolitano is a gifted and skillful writer, pacing "A Good Hard Look" perfectly, telling its story in sometimes striking prose -- describing a graveyard as looking "like a mouthful of teeth," a teenager's energy as "tumbling inside him like a litter of kittens in a muslin sack," and the face of the infant Rose, asleep, as "scrunched up like a discarded piece of stationery."
Even her lesser characters are carefully wrought -- particularly the older Southern women in "A Good Hard Look," among them Flannery's mother Regina, Joe's mother Miss Mary, and Cookie's mother Daisy.
If there is a quibble to be had with the novel, it is with Napolitano's apparent need -- after making so many of her characters suffer unspeakable consequences -- to redeem everyone in sight. But even this is pleasing to those of us who have fallen under Napolitano's easy spell.
Whether she has portrayed Flannery O'Connor, the actual woman, with accuracy is, in the end, immaterial. The Flannery of her book is unforgettable, able to see "everything" and to "translate her insights into words."
Plus, it is inconceivable that anyone who reads this fine book won't want to go on to read, or reread, the novels and short stories of the extraordinary novelist and short story writer who was Flannery O'Connor.
Karen Brady is a retired News columnist.
A Good Hard Look
By Ann Napolitano
326 pages, $25.95