My southern fiction orgy last summer started with Flannery O’Connor. Since I often dip into her stories, I bought and read the latest bio of her, Flannery: A Life of Flannery O’Connor by Brad Gooch. I hoped to learn how she got so wise, and so dark.
Apparently, her mother and their ouchy relationship. And Flannery’s imaginings: she seemingly nudged her own prickly ways a bit to depict sullen grown children like the nasty daughter-with-PhD in “Good Country People”; she showed in masterpieces like “Everything That Rises Must Converge” how such prideful offspring suffered when their mean or silly but always prideful mothers passed.
In her stories O’Connor killed off women like her mother, the most famous instance in “A Good Man is Hard to Find.” But she told friends she was safe: her mother didn’t read her stories, found them too depressing. Flannery is a good biography but Gooch doesn’t tell enough about O’Connor’s able, assertive mother, a sharp businesswoman who, astoundingly enough, ran a successful farm by herself in backwater Georgia. And cared for her lupus-afflicted daughter, who couldn’t drive and whom she drove into town to Catholic Mass daily.
Flannery O’Connor never married and died at 39, but she did know romantic love, Gooch reveals: she had one boyfriend, a book salesman. But he’s quoted as saying that the time he kissed her passionately on the lips her lips collapsed and he found himself kissing her teeth. The experience felt like kissing a corpse to him—repulsed, he ran off to Sweden and married another woman.
The bio led me to reread some of her great stories. They’re such distilled parables that their similar plots are striking, and I wonder how she got away with it. On the other hand I marvel at how the differing surface details of her stories obscure the possible downside of the similarity of her plots. Did critics ever complain?
Even though there’s a lot of humor in her stories—they are funny as hell, so to speak—too much O’Connor depresses me. But listen to her reading “A Good Man is Hard to Find” in 1959 at Vanderbilt and you’ll enjoy the humor, some broad and some sly, especially if you’ve just read the story.
To cleanse my palate after Flannery and her stories, I read To Kill a Mockingbird, which drags a bit, to me. I enjoy better the movie, which compresses the novel’s three years into one. O’Connor famously dismissed Mockingbird as a children’s book. She has a point, but I disagree. O’Connor mistook Lee’s sunnier view of human nature for sentimentality, I think. Yet Lee’s vision of the human possibility of greatness rings true, as well as inspires, and it’s no more false or fantastic than O’Connor’s consistently bleak view of humanity.
Like O’Connnor, Lee hero-worshipped her father and had a difficult relationship with her mother—and of course Lee killed off the mother entirely in To Kill a Mockingbird. Atticus is Alabama’s most eligible bachelor. I next read the recent bio of Lee, Mockingbird: A Portrait of Harper Lee, by Charles J. Shields, which was decent. The book is handicapped by Lee’s reticence and by her lack of authorial productivity, leaving Shields with scant material.
His best explanation of why she failed to complete another novel she worked on, as well as a true-crime account planned along the lines of her friend Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, was that she was overwhelmed by the success of Mockingbird and quit. Anyway, that’s supposedly what she told a waiter in New York, says Shields.
All this led me back to one of my all-time favorite authors, another southerner, Walker Percy, who knew O’Connor. I reread his second novel, The Last Gentleman, the followup to his National Book Award winner The Moviegoer. I hadn’t read it in thirty years but adored it again for its humor and its rollicking road-trip structure; I was surprised by the beauty of its descriptive passages and by how Percy achieves lyricism in a stripped syntax that uses rhythm to avoid commas:
Nights were the best. Then as the thick singing darkness settled about the little caboose which shed its cheerful square of light on the dark soil of old Carolina, they might debark and, with the pleasantest sense of stepping down from the zone of the possible to the zone of the realized, stroll to a service station or fishing camp or grocery store, where they’d have a beer or fill up the tank with spring water or lay in eggs and country butter and grits and slab bacon; then back to the camper, which they’d show off to the storekeeper, he ruminating a minute and: all got to say is, don’t walk off and leave the keys in it—and so on in the complex Southern tactic of assaying a sort of running start, a joke before the joke, ten assumptions shared and a common stance of rhetoric and a whole shared set of special ironies and opposites. He was home. Even though he was hundreds of miles from home and had never been here and it was not even the same here—it was older and more decorous, more tended to and a dream with the past—he was home.
Gooch says in Flannery that Percy based his character “Val,” a nun, on O’Connor. That was one of the reasons I reread The Last Gentleman—I wanted to understand his take on O’Connor—but I couldn’t see much resemblance between them. And in the novel, Val isn’t much developed.
Then I reread Percy’s revisiting of these characters some years later in The Second Coming. I was surprised that Percy seemed to have forgotten Val’s lineage; he slips in the book’s only reference to her and refers to her as the heroine’s sister instead of as her aunt. Percy, of withered Protestant roots and a ferocious convert to Catholicism, seems to view the fallen world in a much more kindly light than O’Connor did. Much of The Second Coming deals with Will Barrett’s attempt to understand his father’s suicide. Like Barrett, Percy’s father killed himself, and so did his mother. Cancer got Percy, and he was trying to correspond with Bruce Springsteen about the biblical imagery in Springsteen’s songs when he died.