In a world that more and more frequently seems to press the Big Questions upon us at every turn, there can be few more necessary writers than Flannery O’Connor.
O’Connor is The Buffalo News Book Club selection for December, a month in which we traditionally turn to a classic read. Last year, we tackled James Joyce.
This year, we take up O’Connor’s soaring 1955 short- story collection, “A Good Man Is Hard to Find and Other Stories.”
Amid the tinsel and giftwrap and holly, readers are invited to spend time with a uniquely American writer whose blisteringly direct, forthright prose proves the short story can move us as much as a novel, and maybe more.
Not only that: O’Connor is also unforgettably funny, and smarter than any two or three of the rest of us put together.
This slender story collection starts off simply, with a slow-burning tale – the title story – about a manipulative grandmother who doesn’t want to go on a road trip with her family.
But be warned: This book travels miles and miles before its conclusion – and, though now 57 years old, it may just be the sharpest, most shocking book you’ll read all year.
O’Connor is a thoroughly urgent modern writer, even as some of her Southern Gothic-tinged fiction (she would shudder at the label) can seem remote and antique. She is an American voice we need to know in order to make sense of the country – let alone the world – that we live in.
O’Connor, a Roman Catholic and native Southerner who died in 1964 at age 39, is unafraid of tackling the questions that, if they occur to us, keep us awake nights – or in a state of perpetual semi-alert. That is vividly evident in “In “A Good Man Is Hard to Find.”
O’Connor’s writing seems fully in agreement with what C.S. Lewis had to say about life as a Christian in a modern era, in “Mere Christianity”:
“Enemy-occupied territory – that is what this world is. Christianity is the story of how the rightful king has landed, you might say landed in disguise, and is calling us all to take part in a great campaign of sabotage.”
Yet O’Connor – born Mary Flannery, in Savannah, Ga., in 1925 – is funny and wry at the same time. While she tackles the big issues of human existence and morality and ethical living, she never forgets that readers also really like to laugh.
“The girl had taken the Ph.D in philosophy and this left Mrs. Hopewell at a complete loss,” O’Connor writes of one of her characters.
And then, a bit later: “All day Joy sat on her neck in a deep chair, reading. Sometimes she went for walks but she didn’t like dogs or cats or birds or flowers or nature or nice young men. She looked at nice young men as if she could smell their stupidity.”
Among O’Connor’s probing points, in this collection and elsewhere in her novels and stories:
• Why do some people go through life deformed and disabled, while others are blessed by beauty and, what may in the end be much better, dumb luck?
To hear what O’Connor has to say about that, turn to “Good Country People,” the second-to-last story in this collection, in which a smooth-talking Bible salesman works his way into the confidence of a young woman, Joy (renamed by herself Hulga) Hopewell, who has been crippled in a shooting accident and uses a wooden leg.
• Why do humans suffer – and, moreover, suffer in ways that seem wholly out of proportion to any wrongs they may have committed in their brief and miserable lives?
For O’Connor’s take on the subject of human suffering and its value, as a redemptive or embittering force, see the title story. In it, a killer nicknamed The Misfit encounters three generations of a small-town Southern family on a road trip.
“I said long ago, you get you a signature and sign everything you do and keep a copy of it,” the criminal tells the grandmother, after a car accident has brought them all together.
“Then you’ll know what you done and you can hold up the crime to the punishment and see do they match and in the end you’ll have something to prove you ain’t been treated right. I call myself the Misfit,’ he said, ‘because I can’t make what all I done wrong fit what all I gone through in punishment.”
• Does God care about you, me, any of us? And, deep down, do we care about each other? How much is blood worth, and marriage, and friendship?
You can’t get a more poignant take on these questions than “The Life You Save May Be Your Own,” the third story here (and another piece that reveals O’Connor’s singular brilliance with, of all things, the titles of stories and novels, and the names of characters).
In this story, a man calling himself Tom T. Shiftlet arrives at a remote rural farm where a scrappy, self-protective woman named Lucynell Crater – described by O’Connor as “about the size of a cedar fence post,” with “a man’s gray hat pulled down low over her head” – lives with her intellectually disabled daughter, a large, mute, blond-haired girl, also named Lucynell.
The stranger marries the daughter, and takes her on a weekend honeymoon to a hotel, with unexpected results.
“He was more depressed than ever,” O’Connor writes of Shiftlet, at the story’s conclusion, “as he drove on by himself.”
O’Connor lived in Milledgeville, a small rural town in Georgia, most of her short life. She never married, instead living with her mother, Regina Cline O’Connor. O’Connor raised peacocks and other exotic fowl as a hobby, and maintained correspondences with many pre-eminent writers of her day. (Pay attention to her stories and novels for images of birds, especially peacocks.)
A product of the Iowa Writers Workshop, O’Connor was also a lifetime student of Catholic theology and doctrine, and remained a devout Catholic all her life. She reviewed books for Catholic papers, and was known to lecture on religious topics.
Her slim output as a published writer consists of two novels, more than 30 short stories, and numerous critical works. She died at 39, of complications from the lupus that had also claimed her father.
In one of her essays, O’Connor wrote this, of her point of view as a writer and woman: “I see from the standpoint of Christian orthodoxy.”
“This means that for me the meaning of life is centered in our Redemption by Christ and what I see in the world I see in its relation to that. I don’t think that this is a position that can be taken halfway or one that is particularly easy in these times to make transparent in fiction.”
Even today – perhaps never more than today – O’Connor spurs us on, to consider the questions that define us as humans.
More from the author
If you enjoy this month’s selection by Flannery O’Connor, try these other titles in her bibliography:
• “Wise Blood,” a 1952 novel.
• “The Violent Bear It Away,” a novel from 1960.
• “Everything That Rises Must Converge,” a short-story collection published in 1965.
A good website to visit, for an overview of O’Connor’s life and work, is “Comforts of Home,” www.flanneryoconnor.org.
To reach the Book Club at The Buffalo News, write to us at email@example.com, or by mail at The Buffalo News Book Club, P.O. Box 100, Buffalo, NY 14240.