Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Flannery O'Connor's "A Good Man Is Hard to Find": Book Review

Thirty-odd years after I first read these stories, I heard them read aloud. Marguerite Gavin, who often brings her supple, adept voice to mysteries, is well suited to dramatizing for Blackstone Audio the eccentrics, bigots, and drifters of Southern Gothic, who populate these stories published in the mid-1950s.

Many of Flannery O'Connor's stories were assigned in my college course on Religious Themes in American literature, and Theology and Literature, unsurprisingly. Those in the know with Scripture, and also with Protestant down-home versions of how it's interpreted as opposed to (at least pre-Vatican II) Catholic orthodoxy can draw out strands of the rich intellectual and spiritual traditions inspiring O'Connor, which her letters document well published as "The Habit of Being." Some also are in the handsome Library of America edition of her writings.

Yet, these often lively stories remain entertaining and thoughtful for all. They're accessible for those without religious grounding, even if such an audience will miss many references and allusions, in a time when fewer are raised with such literacy. I've tried to teach "A Good Man Is Hard to Find" with its grim, bespectacled Misfit and its desperate, caricatured, but in the end oddly endearing if no less annoying grandmother. It worked to put off more than it won over. The dark humor of "Good Country People" might be appreciated for those with a taste for bad taste, rather than those mystified by satire with an edge and a disturbing sense of how the transcendent descends. Perhaps such stories are better recommended than analyzed in a classroom--they may lose some energy when taken apart too diligently, however well intended the dissection may be.

O'Connor's craft in such stories, getting us to laugh at those she satirizes, like Hulga in "Good Country People," before going on to reveal her protagonists' vulnerability, reveals O'Connor's considerable talent. Gavin's skill works to enhance those in stories that on paper held less interest for me. "The Artificial Nigger" (Amazon rejected my review when I wrote that noun out) with its relentless evocation of a terrible Atlanta cityscape as seen by a cruel old man and his grandson sizzles. Racial themes simmer in many contexts here, even if they rarely boil over: this tension O'Connor exploits deftly. "A Late Encounter with the Enemy" with its old Confederate as in a museum trotted out works better as a vocal performance than a story, for me; similarly, "The River" felt very symbolic and predestined with its ending, and for me this (as with some others included here) lacks the lighter touch of O'Connor's best stories, but listening to it, it kept my interest more.

"The Life You Save May Be Your Own" cannot be topped for sheer meanness; "A Circle in the Fire" and "A Temple of the Holy Ghost" were both solid stories, even if their plots failed to intrigue me as much as others. "A Good Man Is Hard to Find" with its comedy turned terror by skillful foreshadowing and "Good Country People" with what feels like Flannery's basis in gleeful yet poignant semi-self-caricature remain for me the standouts.

All the same, Gavin's navigation of Irish and Polish as well as diverse Southern accents for "The Displaced Person" enriched this lengthier story. The last in the collection, it tackles issues of alienation, unbelief, and conversion in a more sustained, character-driven manner which displays an intriguing application of Cold War paranoia, post-Holocaust repulsion, and relentless poetic or divine justice as felt by an insecure white woman running a motley crew of field hands. Some stories sticking in the memory more than others. But all merit attention. It's a recommended introduction to her storytelling, followed by the ambitious, tense ones she was working on when she died, "Everything That Rises Must Converge." (Amazon US 7-29-12)

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