I find it hard to believe, given my love of short stories, that up until last week, I had never read anything by the American master, Flannery O’Connor. This seemed an enormous gap in my reading history. So I decided to close it.
A Good Man is Hard to Find was nothing that I expected. I somehow skipped over the words “apocalyptic,” “Grotesque” and “Misfit” in the cover blurb and expected a collection of clever, well-written love stories. Instead, O’Connor served up story after story of lowlifes, neglected children, psychopaths and losers. I loved it!
Flannery O’Connor is further proof that America in the 1950s was not all bright colors, mothers in pearls, and sunshine. This intelligent writer was casting her eye on the people who existed in the shadows. She writes about the marginalized, the damaged, the worst in all of us. We meet criminals, drunkards, racists (a lot of racists) and con artists.
Mr. Head stood very still and felt the action of mercy touch him again but this time he knew there were no words in the world that could name it. He understood that it grew out of agony, which is not denied to any man and which is given in strange ways to children. – The Artificial Nigger
These stories gripped me from the very beginning. It’s rare to find an author who can look into a character’s soul and not turn away from the terrible things she might find there. Even the victims in her story defy easy categorization. As The River unfolded, I began to understand that O’Connor was not going to flinch, even when her subject was an innocent boy.
Many of her characters are in search of Salvation, but it’s not easy to find or to grasp; hence the book’s title. This kind of storytelling is uncomfortable, but oh so necessary.
And, despite all of her bleak and disturbing subjects, she manages to interject humor throughout the book.
All the people who had lived in Pitman had the good sense to leave it, either by dying or by moving to the city. – A Stroke of Good Fortune.
Lines like this keep the stories from falling too deep into despair. They gave me a moment of relief and something “likeable” to cling to in her characters.
My favorite story, A Late Encounter with the Enemy came toward the end of the book, but I went back and re-read it three times because I was so drawn to its structure and to its main protagonist, General Sash.
Living had got to be such a habit with him that he couldn’t conceive of any other condition.
I could see his sad relationship with his foolhardy niece, Sally Poker Sash, as clearly as if they were my neighbors. In fact, I recognized bits of myself and others in many of O’Connor’s characters.
After all, we’re not always good, are we?