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VINE VOICEon December 18, 2000
Wise Blood (1952)(Flannery O'Connor 1925-68)
All human nature vigorously resists grace because grace changes us and the change is painful. -Flannery O'Connor
Wise Blood is Flannery O'Connor's grotesque picaresque tale of Hazel Motes of Eastrod, Tennessee; a young man who has come to the city of Taulkinham bringing with him an enormous resentment of Christianity and the clergy. He is in an open state of rebellion against the rigidity of his itinerant preacher grandfather and his strict mother. So when one of the first people he encounters is the blind street preacher Asa Hawks and Motes finds himself both attracted and repelled by Hawks' bewitching fifteen year old daughter Lily Sabbath, he reacts by establishing his own street ministry. He founds the "Church without Christ":
Listen you people, I'm going to take the truth with me wherever I go. I'm going to preach it to whoever'll listen at whatever place. I'm going to preach there was no Fall because there was nothing to fall from and no Redemption because there was no Fall and no Judgment because there wasn't the first two. Nothing matters but that Jesus was a liar.
As you can guess the church is singularly unsuccessful, although he does attract a couple of other crackpots: Enoch Emery a young man who works at the zoo and longs for a kind word from anybody; and Onnie Jay Holy, yet another rival preacher who believes Motes when he says he's found a "new jesus."
While at first this cast of bizarre characters, ranging from merely repugnant to truly evil, and the scenes of physical, moral and spiritual degradation through which they pass all seem to be just a little too much, the reader is carried along by O'Connor's sure hand for dark comedy. The book is very funny. But as the story draws to a close, O'Connor's true mission is revealed; Motes loses his fight against faith and he achieves a kind of grace, becoming something like a Christian martyr to atone for his sins. O'Connor has something serious and important to say about the modern human condition and the emptiness of a life without faith. That she is able to disguise this message in such a ribald comic package is quite an achievement.
Reading the book inevitably called to mind Carson McCullers' dreadful book The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter (1940), which made the Modern Library Top 100 Novels of the Twentieth Century list. It too is a Southern gothic, populated by dismal misanthropes. But it is devoid of humor and has nothing to say about the characters and the world they've created. Wise Blood is a superior novel in every sense and really deserves that spot on the list.
The Violent Bear It Away (1960)(Flannery O'Connor 1925-68)
From the days of John the Baptist until now, the Kingdom of Heaven suffereth violence, and the violent bear it away. -Matthew 11:12
Flannery O'Connor wrote with one of the most distinctive voices in American Literature; a kind of grotesque amalgam of Jonathan Edwards, Charles Brockden Brown, Edgar Allen Poe, and William Faulkner. She perceived the world in starkly Manichean terms, as a struggle between the forces of Light and Dark, Good and Evil. The Violent Bear it Away is a psychomachia--literally a battle for the soul--the story of a backwoods Southern boy named Francis Marion Tarwater (see The Violent Bear it Away and The Bible by Angela Lucey for more on this). The boy's great uncle, an Old Testament style patriarch, kidnapped him away from an uncle, George Rayber, and has raised him to be a prophet of God. Upon his great uncle's death, Tarwater rejects the prophetic mission and heads to the city to live with his uncle, who tries to wean the boy away from the teachings of the great uncle. Through a series of increasingly violent actions Tarwater is eventual driven back to the woods and a final acceptance of God and his own role in God's plans.
This is powerful stuff, O'Connor felt that exaggeration and caricature were more likely to reach a modern audience than more subtle styles ever could. Combine that with her vision of violence as a sort of crucible which forces the individual to make a final choice between Good and Evil, and you've got the makings of a truly disturbing fiction. The book will surely not appeal to all tastes, but it is undeniably affecting and thought provoking.
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on November 22, 2000
...can be found in Flannery O'Connor. But don't be deceived, she is not an easy read. Her stories are disturbing and her characters are often grotesque, yet the reader undoubtedly knows that the author loves her characters very much. We never feel that a bitter, misanthropic creator is behind the stories, and this is the same view that O'Connor has of God that is put forth in her stories. Reading Wise Blood feels like going fifteen rounds with Mike Tyson, and making it to the final bell. Although the reader feels battered and beaten up afterward, you also feel saved. This is the feeling most of O'Connor's stories leave with the reader, and it is a result of her deeply held faith. These stories are some the strongest affirmations of faith to be found in a disturbing, modern world.
Granted, some stories do not leave the reader with the idea of grace that Hazel Motes attains at the end of Wise Blood. O'Connor, herself, said that the old man in "A View of the Woods" is pretty as close to damned as any of her characters. But most of characters, we know, are saved, no matter how pretentious (the woman in "Revelation" for example), or misguided in thought.
The stories, despite their ugliness, are almost transcendent in where they leave the reader. In short, they are beautiful, and a testament to her faith.
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on January 18, 2000
Have you ever wondered what you would do if you were God and you had the ability to punish people justly and adequately for their actions? This author certainly did, and it turned out to be some of the most original art since cubism. If Flannery O'Connor hadn't died so young (39) her name would easily role off the tips of people's tongues just as easily as Faulkner or Hemingway. Many call her the greatest American Woman to write prose, yet some how that description seems to fall a bit short. Discussing themes of destruction of the person by way of religion, the horrifically beautiful way people touch one another, and the devout karma that will attack those in need of it, O'Connor transcends any labels that might beset her.
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on June 26, 2000
O'Connor did not write for celebrity, impressive money, or so that she could look glamorous, sleekly pasted on the back jacket photo. Maybe she knew one day we'd have Danielle Steele for that. As it was, her photos of herself were not something she admired. She wrote because she had talent, and she felt to do less would be do to a disservice to her gift. She wrote for love, but not for sex. She writes characthers who search for love, for understanding of identity, wisdom, or redemption. As Ms. O'Connor knew, all of us who inhabit creation are weak and flawed. She turned her creative and spirtual sights to showing us how we flawed creatures do what we do and how we damage ourselves. O'Connor writes of suffering and love and faith, in spite of all that seems crude, awkward, and yes, grotesque, in our world. She isn't EASY to understand the way a romance novel is, or an adventure story. She's not writing that kind of book. What she writes in multi-layed, but it was not, to O'Connor's mind, subtle. Still, O'Connor writes prose that pulls you along as a reader, that she manages to encompase a tone or atmosphere in places that feels as though it would explode. That's not bad writing--that's good, because you read it, and you know that you're getting something profound, even if you're not sure what that is right at that moment. O'Connor believed in God, in that kind of love. She knew how sickly we humans approach it. She attempts no less than to draw us to an eternal message. She's not anti-religious in that message because she's writing about the weaknesses of those who fail in their station, in what they were called upon to do, with what gifts they were given. That type of message may not be in fashion now, no more than it was when O'Connor wrote, but that does not make this fiction "poorly written." O'Connor was not a fast, sloppy writer. She honed her craft. These works will give you as much as you can put into them, and then some. The purchase price on this one is more than repaid by the intense value in the meaning of the work.
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on December 21, 2010
If you've never read any of Flannery O'Connor's works, "Three By Flannery O'Connor" is the best place to start. This one volume includes both of her novels, "Wise Blood," and "The Violent Bear It Away," as well as a collection of her short stories, "Everything That Rises Must Converge."

If you've never read O'Connor before, you're in for a treat: she is a unique voice in 20th century American literature. Her fiction is like whiskey: you're likely to have a strong reaction to it and will probably either love it or hate it. When I had my high school class read some of her short stories, some gravitated toward O'Connor and wanted to read more, while others were just too creeped out by her to read anymore of her works.

What makes Flannery O'Connor's fiction especially unique is that she is an authentic Christian voice but one that appeals to modern sensibilities. So excellent is her fiction that in spite of her obviously Christian perspective, she has been elevated to one of the highest places in the contemporary literary canon.

Hers is a world filled with both ignorant fundamentalist Christians and even more obtuse atheists. She creates grotesque characters but places them in almost normal setting within the small town Southern U.S. in which she grew up. Her stories challenge her readers because while you never quite know what's going to happen in the end, you know that it means something: she doesn't write open-ended stories that merely tease the reader. Through her grotesque and even shocking vision she communicates a world that is mysterious and sacramental and a world in which much more goes on than meets the eye. You see the hand of God at work in her fiction but made manifest in the most unlikely and startling ways.

When you read her letters you realize that she was quite conscious about the way she wrote, and she was not afraid to help the reader know how to read her works (once again, she is much less coy than other modern writers). Here are three of my favorite quotes from O'Connor herself about her work:

"The Catholic novelist in the South will see many distorted images of Christ, but he will certainly feel that a distorted image of Christ is better than no image at all. I think he will feel a good deal more kinship with backwoods prophets and shouting fundamentalists than he will with those politer elements for whom the supernatural is an embarrassment and for whom religion has become a department of sociology or culture or personality development."

"All my stories are about the action of grace on a character who is not very willing to support it, but most people think of these stories as hard, hopeless and brutal."

Here is perhaps the most telling quotation of all to help explain her fiction: "The novelist with Christian concerns will find in modern life distortions which are repugnant to him, and his problem will be to make these appear as distortions to an audience which is used to seeing them as natural .... When you can assume that your audience holds the same beliefs you do, you can relax a little and use more normal means of talking to it; when you have to assume that it does not, then you have to make your vision apparent by shock -- to the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost-blind you draw large and startling figures."

If you've never read Flannery O'Connor before, you owe it to yourself to explore her characters and world. If you have read her before and want more, this is a great place to get a lot of O'Connor all in one book.
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on January 25, 2008
Reading this book, I was struck by how often the macabre and the perverse is intricately depicted in O'Connor's stories. In sharp contrast to this theme, there is also a clear Christian sense to many of the stories, and those where it is lacking it is perhaps the lack of it which jars the reader most profoundly. This is the most masterful stroke of Flannery O'Connor; she can show fallen and falling human nature in all its grotesqueness an d can also show us how difficult the struggle can be to obtain the Christian ideal; how it is often easier to give into our baser instincts. These are stories which should rightfully jar us, and having done so, should lead us to reflect on the truths which they contain.
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VINE VOICEon March 22, 2008
Flannery O'Connor's characters suffer and suffer, but it's comedic because they die in the end. Her characters uniformly rage against God and organized religion, or else commit horrific crimes in His name, all of which speaks to her deep, abiding Catholic faith.

Am I the only person who doesn't understand this woman's appeal?

This is a collection of three of O'Connor's four fictional works: "Wise Blood" from 1952, "The Violent Bear It Away" from 1960, and the short-story collection "Everything That Rises Must Converge" from 1965, a year after a long and painful battle with lupus bore her away at 39. Only 1955's "A Good Man Is Hard To Find" is left off, a good thing because "4 By Flannery O'Connor" may have been more than I could safely handle.

"Wise Blood" is the O'Connor novel people bring up most, a tale of a wandering misanthrope named Hazel Motes who, rebelling against the stern dictates of his preacher grandfather, decides he is going to found the Church Without Christ, urging people to shake off oppressive Christianity. His obsession with Jesus makes for a kind of reverse devotion.

"I seen you wouldn't never have no fun or let anybody else because you didn't want nothing but Jesus!" is the way one of Hazel's girlfriends puts it.

Hazel only gets worse as the story goes along, much the same way as the protagonist of O'Connor's other novel, Francis Marion Tarwater of "Violent". Brought up by a strange fundamentalist uncle who ups and dies, Francis shows up at the doorstep of an atheist relative and his mentally-retarded son. He is taken in and counseled he should put away his uncle's God-fearing attitudes, though this like every other tack in an O'Connor story only leads to disaster.

Of the nine short stories in this collection, only three don't conclude with some character being murdered or dying suddenly. The theme of blood is constant. "Blood don't lie" is the way a doctor puts it in "The Enduring Chill", and in other stories, this is borne out in the complexities and shackles of family relations. For someone dying of a blood disease, this may be the stuff of irony or despair.

O'Connor's stories are certainly unique in their construction, and she has a way with a phrase. It all comes together here just once, a story called "Revelation" where a waiting-room encounter makes a woman take stock of her life. As the soughing of crickets comes across like a heavenly choir, one gets a rare sense of what O'Connor meant by her famous quote, about grace being change and change being painful.

The rest of it was just painful. Are you one of those who get O'Connor? Good for you. If not, you aren't alone.
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on February 12, 2014
This book is a good Flannery "starter kit," containing three of her most well-known (and well-loved!) stories. It makes a great addition to any personal library!
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on February 24, 2015
Wise Blood was a very strange and often perverted tale, I don't think I will reat the other two Flannery books.
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