Saturday, October 02, 2004

Wise Blood, by Flannery O'Connor

Flannery O'Connor was born in Savannah, Georgia, in 1925. She died in 1964, not even making it to forty. The publication date in the Faber edition I read says the novel first appeared in 1949, although the short bio says Wise Blood appeared in 1952. Either way, she must have been writing this novel in her early twenties, an extraordinary achievement for someone so young.

I've often enough heard the name Flannery O'Connor, but didn't know much about her writing. Chris Hubbard recommended I read this one, saying it was 'funny'. I'll say. It's more a grotesque kind of humour though, and peculiar to American writers of this time. I'm trying to think of other American writers who specialise in this coarse mix of simple religion, violence and sex, populated with misfits, goofballs, preachers and prostitutes. The novels of James Purdy, William March, Barry Gifford (not a writer of that period, I know) and Carson McCullers come to mind. Plus the plays of Tennessee Williams.

Wise Blood tells the story of Hazel Moates, recently released from the armed forces, who returns to the evangelical Deep South. He becomes a preacher of his own religion, 'the Church without Christ', which seems totally heretical, but is also very religious in its call for a new Jesus. Hazel meets quite a few characters on the way, giving way to many comic episodes.

My favourite line, and one that hopefully will sum up some of the best humour in the novel is when one of the characters, Enoch Emory, goes to see the famous gorilla Gonga! Giant Jungle Monarch, who shakes the hands of his patrons, mostly little old grannies and excited children. Enoch is a complete coward, and decides he will line up and abuse the Gorilla. This line I thought just brilliant:

'To his mind, an opportunity to insult a successful ape came from the hand of Providence.'

When Enoch finally gets to Gonga, he nervously goes into this long spiel that obviously bores the crap out of Gonga, who is just a man in a gorilla suit. Gonga replies, 'You go to hell.' Can life get anymore humiliating than this?

Then there is Hazel Moate's girlfriend, the creepy Sabbath Lily Hawkes, daughter of the 'blind' preacher (he's not blind at all, just a faker) Asa Hawkes. I just loved her so much. She's a plain girl who determines she's going to 'get' Hazel, and is all romantic and lovey-dovey, but it all seems so out of place. For example, when Hazel's crappy car is giving him grief she joyously announces, 'It's a grand auto,' and 'it runs just like honey'.

Another favourite was the prostitute, who's lost all her illusions and inhibitions about sex. She cuts out obscene pictures in Hazel's hat, just for fun.

There are just so many kooky portraits and incidents. The descriptions of the Landlady are brilliant, her hair described as bunches of grapes arranged on her head. She's sick of people who bludge off the government, seeing she's a tax payer. When she wants Sabbath Lily Hawkes out of the way, so she can get her hands on Hazel, she determines to have Sabbath sent to a 'detention home' for girls, noting she was 'eligible'.

Even the racism in the novel is so stupid it's funny. The characters judge the worth of a manufactured item to be good as long as it's not made by 'foreign n��' (I can't use the 'n' word, but today we'd call them African Americans).

This is not to say that Flannery O'Connor is mocking the people she's writing about. Quite the opposite. There's a very obvious sympathy for her characters.

As I said earlier, this type of novel is peculiar to American authors. Although I couldn't help but think of Thomas Hardy as I read Wise Blood, with his bizarre characters and grotesque humour. I'll certainly be looking for Flannery's other novels and a bio.

Anyone who could write Wise Blood, whatever the age, is someone touched by genius. The fact that she wrote it in her twenties - and had probably been brooding over creating this type of fiction in her teenage years - is all the more staggering.

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