Author: Flannery O'Connor
Narrator: Marguerite Gavin
Publication Date: 1953
Publisher: Blackstone Audio
Blurb(GR): This book of short stories revealed O'Connor as one of the most original and provocative writers to emerge from the South. Her apocalyptic vision of life is expressed through grotesque, often comic situations in which the principal character faces a problem of salvation.
I enjoy all kinds of writing. I like the simple, breezy writing that’s entertaining and takes very little effort to understand. I like the dense, loaded writing that takes weeks of thought and discussion to fully unpack. The remarkable thing about the writing of Flannery O’Connor is that it somehow seems to encompass that entire spectrum.
Her writing is without a doubt easy to digest, but I would never in a million years call it simple. Reading her prose feels less like reading and more like having her thoughts and imagery mainlined into my brain with no translation necessary. And yet, she also packs a massive punch of history and depth into her stories – a depth of meaning that, for me, sometimes didn’t become fully apparent until I’d thought about these stories (and mostly about these characters) for days. She has this incredible, consummate control over her words that I’ve rarely (if ever) seen. She manages to be succinct, yet descriptive; bare, yet three-dimensional; meaningful in a fraction of the words it would take a lesser writer. Her characters are so three-dimensional it’s like they spring up in your head, fully alive.
And oh boy, does she write some reprehensible characters. Never before has an author so quickly succeeded in making me not only hate her characters, but anticipate their downfall with a sort of sadistic glee. Her characters are good, upstanding country people who feel reassured by their habits and place in the world. And it’s oh so easy to sit on high and judge them for their willful ignorance – to feel holier, more worldly. Meanwhile, they’re feeling holier than everyone else in their community – set apart. But by the end, Flannery O’Connor shows you (more like punches you in the face with the fact) that the joke’s actually on you and her characters both. The world of Flannery O’Connor is a brutal, violent place where no one is ever safe or set apart – especially not her readers and ESPECIALLY not her characters.
One of my favorite stories in this collection is Good Country People, about an upstanding southern mother and her thirty year old, “crippled” daughter who holds a Ph.D in philosophy but who still lives at home and is viewed as a child due to her condition:
“Nothing is perfect. This was one of Mrs. Hopewell’s favorite sayings. Another was: that is life! And still another, the most important, was: well, other people have their opinions too. She would make these statements, usually at the table, in a tone of gentle insistence as if no one held them but her, and the large hulking Joy, whose constant outrage had obliterated every expression from her face, would stare just a little to the side of her, her eyes icy blue, with the look of someone who had achieved blindness by an act of will and means to keep it.”
With that tiny paragraph, she says more about their relationship than I could ever say in any summary. The story follows Joy, (who has rechristened herself “Hulga” in an act of rebellion) as she decides to condescend to have a fling with a simple, travelling bible salesman, gets more than she bargained for, and stumbles over her own true core beliefs in the process. My other favorites were A Good Man is Hard to Find, A Stroke of Good Fortune, A Circle in the Fire, and The Displaced Person. (A couple of these are available for free online so I've linked to them here.)
Narrator Marguerite Gavin is excellent as always. She nails all of the different Southern accents...and tackles more N-bombs than I'm guessing she's ever said in her entire life. I know there's been some claim that these stories are racist, but I would wholeheartedly disagree. Rather, these stories are about racism and about racist characters - one never gets the sense that Flannery O'Connor holds these beliefs herself or is complicit.
Perfect Musical Pairing
Tammy Wynette – Count Your Blessings (Instead of Sheep)