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.