A Good Man Is Hard To Find and Other Stories

Robert Lowell said about this collection of Flannery O’Connor’s stories, “Much savagery, compassion, farce, art, and truth have gone into these stories. O’Connor’s characters are wholeheartedly horrible, and almost better than life. I find it hard to think of a funnier or more frightening writer.” While there are things I’d say quite differently to phrase my own reaction, this quotation begins to get at some of the strong, deep emotions she evokes, and at some of the contradictions inherent in her work: the savagery that strips her characters naked, and the compassion that loves them when they are manifestly to be hated; the farce that pushes each situation to its very worst, and the art that makes that worst into something potentially redemptive; the truth that comes out, whether the characters like it or not, and most often they don’t — and indeed, who would?

My own reflection on reading these stories was that they were what I imagine death to be like: painful, often devastatingly painful, but also cram-jammed full of life, every corner, every breath, every crease in the characters’ hats — and therefore beautiful. Her style is tight, dense, precise: every movement, every exchange, every step toward the climax of pain and redemption is intended. When Lowell says that O’Connor is funny, he means it: there are frequent flashes of humor and brilliant insight, and the farce is there, too. But when he pairs that adjective with “frightening,” he’s not wrong. The humor is there because it leads the reader closer to the moment of whatever truth may be wrung from the heart of the story. It’s ruthless. Being beautiful and compassionate doesn’t make it less ruthless.

These stories are inexorable, but that doesn’t make them less unexpected. O’Connor is working on biblical values here: the last are to be first. In one of the most devastating, “The River,” a neglected four-year-old claims to be called Bevel, the name of an itinerant preacher. The story itself takes the child’s claim seriously: he is called only Bevel until the end. In “The Artificial Nigger,” Mr. Head takes his grandson Nelson to Atlanta for the day, to try to teach him a lesson about the big city. Instead, he learns the depth of his own capacity for betrayal and fear, and his own need for mercy. And in the complexly woven “The Displaced Person,” the notion of displacement and brokennness — and the potential for redemption that comes with it — moves from one character to another until the inevitable denouement.

In Teresa’s review of Everything That Rises Must Converge, (check the comments) she says that O’Connor judges people for judging others. I would say that what emerges from this collection is less a sense that judging others is the crime — more the need to establish a hierarchy among us. What O’Connor is saying, time after time, is that we are all in precisely the same position: the old woman and the four-year-old child, the sound and the lame, the well and the ill, the black and the white, the educated and the ignorant, the atheist and the believer. We are all in the same precise and agonizing need of mercy. Trying to create a system whereby some of us need it more than others, or don’t need it at all, is futile, ridiculous, and ultimately untenable.

It’s true that there’s theology in these stories. But O’Connor isn’t a preacher. She’s wading into some dark territory with savagery, compassion, farce, art, and truth. She leaves the ending of some of her stories ambiguous — is there hope, or is it tragic, or is it both? — and even the nastiest of her characters are profoundly, beautifully human. I loved these stories, and I thank Teresa for giving me the push to read them at last.

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11 Responses to A Good Man Is Hard To Find and Other Stories

  1. I was so happy to read your thoughts on this on. I purchased several Flanney books in 2011, including this one, and really need to squeeze at least a few in this year. terrific review.

    • Jenny says:

      Teresa gave me this one to read in our annual book swap, and I’m so glad she did. It was eye-opening and revealing, and though sometimes it was difficult reading, never less than rewarding.

  2. alenamurguia says:

    Wow. I have never read any Flannery O’Connor, but your review makes me want to run right out and get this collection. It’s definitely time for me to fill in that reading gap. Thank you for the inspiration.

    • Jenny says:

      It was a gap for me, too — something that seemed right in line with all my interests, yet I had never read her. I hope you enjoy the collection as much as I did!

  3. Jeanne says:

    I have always loved these stories, and you have articulated some of the reasons–that we all need mercy, and “trying to create a system whereby some of us need it more than others, or don’t need it at all, is futile, ridiculous, and ultimately untenable” is so true, and well said.
    Often I think of the misfit–a horrible character, and yet I have so much sympathy for his view that the grandmother “would of been a good woman if there had been someone there to shoot her every minute of her life.”

    • Jenny says:

      I loved that story. The fact that it’s the first one in the collection is so daring. Her mistake — minor and self-centered — unleashes a tragedy that is waiting to happen to anyone and everyone. Would we all be better people in a crisis? I’m not sure, but this grandmother certainly was.

  4. I love what you say regarding O’Connor’s ruthlessness. There is no mercy in her writing and her description, but in doing so, her characters seem all the more human and real, full of juxtapositions. This is such a fantastic collection, and I really enjoyed reading what you had to say about it.

    • Jenny says:

      It’s that humanness that got to me. I am still not sure how to put my finger on it. It’s not just the poverty, or the hints of dialect. I think it’s O’Connor’s absolutely unerring way of putting her finger on people’s squirming foibles, whether that is their sense of what makes them special or whether that is their sense that there is nothing that makes them special. It’s flat-out amazing.

  5. Teresa says:

    I’m so glad you liked these. I knew you would. I love how O’Connor is able to draw in so many different kinds of feelings into her stories and how she has so much to say but leaves so much for readers to work out on their own.

    Her other collection is also good, but this collection is just about perfect. Your thoughts about everyone all being the same in the end reminds me strongly of the conclusion to “Revelation,” one of my favorites from Everything That Rises Must Converge. (I believe I quoted it in my review.)

    • Jenny says:

      You did, and it reminded me of the end of “The Artificial Nigger,” when the skies crack open and Mr. Head is allowed to know his own need for mercy. Simply stunning, and in our awareness of his betrayal and need for redemption, we can be dimly aware of our own. The cross-purposes conversations in “The Displaced Person” and the educated Hulga in “Good Country People” were also major standouts for me.

  6. Jenny says:

    Woot! I loved the few Flannery O’Connor stories I had to read in high school, but I haven’t sought her out as an adult because I get her mixed up with Carson McCullers and I know I don’t like Carson McCullers. This sort of thing happens to me a lot. But it’s good to know that you and Teresa both love her — that’s a good recommendation to give me a nudge next time I’m at the library.

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