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perhaps our most underrated author
on 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.