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In which Netty follows Flannery into the deep south …

February 13, 2011

A few years ago I decided my mother needed to be re-educated in books. That approaching the age of 70, and after a lifetime of romance novels and blockbusters, it was high time – way over-time, actually – that she started reading some real books.  By which I mean literature. Now, this was not a job I could entrust to my only sibling – I mean, I dunno what sort of books my little brother reads; I don’t know if he even reads, for that matter, aside from the menu board at KFC, that is … (hi there, Petey! Just checking to see if you or any of your pals read this blog!)

… Anyways, so every year my mom (yes, the Americanisation is intentional – I do it because it annoys her) gets a book as part of her Christmas stocking. The year before last – 2009 – she got Tim Winton’s Cloudstreet. Now, I wouldn’t want anyone to think I don’t put a great deal of thought into what I choose for her, and I genuinely try to get her something I think she might – if not enjoy, then certainly be able to ponder. So, I gave her a couple of months and then I asked her casually in one conversation what she thought of what is considered one of the greatest works of late 20th century Australian fiction.

“Yes, of course I read it,” she replied, somewhat indignantly. “And I thought it was … peculiar.”

I think I was about a quarter of the way through Flannery O’Connor’s Complete Stories when the exact same phrase popped into my head. It might have been just as I got to the punchline of “Enoch And The Gorilla” (wherein a slightly dim teenage misfit steals a gorilla suit from a travelling circus-type act and apparently abandons his humanity in favour of living in the wild in said suit). This story is one of a suite of four that was later rewritten as the novel Wise Blood – and as ridiculous as it sounds in summation, it is actually quite poignant and touching in its pathos. But there is no doubt it is peculiar. And there is no other word that better sums up this, or any of the other 30 stories that comprise this 550-page collection, first published in 1971, some seven years after O’Connor’s death at the age of 39, after suffering the hereditary disease lupus (it also claimed her father at a young age) for a large part of her adult life.

Although she produced two novels during her lifetime, O’Connor was best known for her short stories and is widely considered one of the foremost writers in the southern gothic tradition. For someone who was brought up a Catholic, spent most of her life in her home state of Georgia, (she also spent several years in Iowa and Connecticut), spent a lot of her life in academia, never married, was plagued by ill health in her later years and died at a relatively young age, her work does not betray any sign of ignorance. She writes widely and thoughtfully, with a very deep understanding of the people of the south – both white and black – but without any misplaced sentiment.

Her work is steeped in a gritty and unflinching reality and her characters suffer from the often unfathomably harsh hand of fate. As a whole, I found these stories – especially when read in great swathes – almost unbearably grim and bleak. Where Andy found black humour, I found black holes – although, in retrospect, yes, I admit there is humour in these pages (I was almost laughing out loud throughout “The Enduring Chill”, above and away my favourite story in this collection). But at the end of the day, there’s nothing much terribly funny about death, and that occurs to O’Connor’s characters in spades – and oftentimes the reader knows it’s inevitable and approaching as relentlessly as an oncoming train to a car stalled on the railway tracks. Quite frankly, I found more and better (and perhaps even intentional) comedy in fellow southern writer William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying (this is something about which Andy and I agree to disagree).

The stories in this collection are in chronological order according to the date they were published; many had their first airing in various magazines or journals, which is reflected here. So, for example, the reader gets every story from O’Connor’s two best-known collections – A Good Man Is Hard To Find and Everything That Rises Must Converge – in this order, rather than the order in which they appear in those two books. It is a device that makes it easy to chart O’Connor’s development and growth as a writer; she had obvious strengths from the onset, but really hit her straps around the time she wrote the stories that make up A Good Man. It is her strongest collection; its only mis-step is A Temple Of The Holy Ghost, which is for mine more rough sketch than fully realised – the only real weakness to be found through a smattering of these tales (there was little use in including Why Do The Heathen Rage?, a previously published excerpt from a never-completed novel). From all accounts, O’Connor did countless drafts and rewrites of her own work before she was satisfied with the finished product; as a result some of her painstakingly-crafted prose seems to have suffered from too much – rather than too little – attention.

It could also be argued that O’Connor’s characterisation suffers from a certain repetitiveness – ignorant, Christian-abiding, southern rural folk; stereotypical, one-step-removed-from-slavery “niggers” (the author’s word, not mine); and, most interestingly, writers who are not terribly good and are often engaged in a daily struggle with their muse (I suspect O’Connor may channelling herself in several of these tales, most notably The Crop) – but she obviously plays to her strengths by writing about what she knows. And although I found the constant racism relentless and depressing, it certainly reflects both the era and the geography.

For newcomers to Flannery O’Connor’s work, I would absolutely recommend the two aforementioned collections, particularly the brilliant, searing A Good Man Is Hard To Find (the story of the same name makes for jaw-dropping, awe-inspiring reading). My interest has been piqued sufficiently to be curious about the novels Wise Blood and The Violent Bear It Away, both of which are represented here.  And while I suspect I will continue to unwittingly pit any short-story collections I read against those of the master, Raymond Carver, Flannery O’Connor is undoubtedly  if not his equal, then certainly his peer, and very deserving of any serious reader’s attention. Except maybe my mom’s. After all, if she couldn’t get her head around the Lambs and the Pickles …

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