A Good Man is Hard to Find


Maybe it makes me a snob, but I have a strong visceral aversion to evaluating novels based on their topicality. With certain reservations, and the knowledge that, of course, every piece of art is informed by and mired in historical context, I'm more or less with Ben Jonson: a truly fine piece of literature should be not for an age, but for all time. To me, a discussion of (for example) Ishiguro's Never Let Me Go will generally be so much more interesting and worthwhile if it focuses on issues of human mortality, the role of art in life, and the effects of socialization and nostalgia, than if it becomes a discussion about the current moral debate around human cloning - especially one claiming that Ishiguro's main point is that we shouldn't clone humans. Very silly, in my opinion. Similar to the rationale that "You should read Halldor Laxness because Iceland's economy is collapsing" or "Mrs. Dalloway is more relevant than ever as the debate over gay marriage rages on." Dude. You should read Laxness and Woolf because they are masters of their genre, because their prose makes your heart sing, because their characters will stick with you through all the years of your life. Not because world events make them a hot accessory this summer. Jeesh.

I know I can be a little shrill on this issue (after all, people really should read for whatever reason they want, regardless of my opinion), so I was intrigued when My Friend Amy pointed out Newsweek's 50 Books of Our Times list. Here was a chance to meet the topicality demon on its own turf, and see if allowing myself to think in terms of topicality could add something to my own analysis of fiction. I intentionally chose a book for which Newsweek's own explanation is vague: all it says is "Stories of the New South, Christ-haunted and out of control, are as scary as they were when published in 1955. 'Shut up, Bobby Lee, it's no real pleasure in life.'" Why does Newsweek think we need such stories at this particular juncture? They don't go into it.

But my bet? It's on the list because of American Christianity, and the culture wars. And luckily, religion is one of the most fascinating - and consternating - aspects of these stories anyway.

O'Connor was a devout Catholic who claimed to be writing to "reveal the mystery of God's grace in everyday life"...and at first this seems totally bizarre. In fact, when I was discussing this book with my mom (herself a Catholic, although a liberal, west-coast one), and brought up the "reveal God's grace" quote, she stated bluntly that she doesn't think O'Connor saw any. Which is a totally understandable opinion. Because these stories, while exquisitely crafted with a taut, brutal beauty, are extremely dark. To me, they at first seemed nihilistic. The characters are drawn vividly, with a few unflinching strokes of a scalpel-like brush; their guts and follies are exposed to the reader unapologetically, and by the end of any given story their hopes are efficiently and systematically crushed. They are lucky to make it out alive - or perhaps, as O'Connor implies in the titular story, the ones who don't make it out are the lucky ones: "'She would of been a good woman," the fugitive says after shooting an elderly woman twice in the head, 'if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life.'"

As untutored as I am in theology of any stripe, this idea of grace through pain and violence, that pain, whether physical or mental, is a sign of progress along God's path, seems to me one of the only ways to reconcile O'Connor's stories with her stated religious purpose. Sometimes this interpretation is fairly obvious; in the story "Good Country People," for example, the atheist daughter Hulga is humiliated for believing herself superior to an ostensibly simple Bible salesman, when he turns out to be even more of a nihilist than she. In perhaps the most uncomfortable story to many modern readers, a poor white grandfather and his grandson, estranged through an act of treachery on the grandfather's part, find forgiveness for each other while gazing together at a lawn ornament caricature of a black boy. (This was, to me, the most compelling example of O'Connor's point that grace, suffering, and oppression are inextricably interwoven.) In "The River," a young boy being raised by neglectful parents is exposed to Christianity for the first time by his baby-sitter, and later ends up running away from home and drowning in the river where he was baptized:

He plunged under once and this time, the waiting current caught him like a long gentle hand and pulled him swiftly forward and down. For an instant he was overcome with surprise; then since he was moving quickly and knew that he was getting somewhere, all his fury and his fear left him.

Mr. Paradise's head appeared from time to time on the surface of the water. Finally, far downstream, the old man rose like some ancient water monster and stood empty-handed, staring with his dull eyes as far down the river line as he could see.

The idea that this four-year-old boy is closer to God while drowning in the river than back at home with his drunk parents is a harsh one. And frankly, the whole "grace comes through pain" philosophy isn't one that I find particularly compelling. Sometimes wisdom and peace do come through the process of suffering, but I believe that crucible usually has to take place on a foundation of love and support in order for a person to gain from the experience. In other words, I don't believe that having a literal or figurative gun pointed at one's head throughout one's entire life is generally conducive to becoming a good person. I think this is just an area in which O'Connor and I profoundly differ, and I have to enjoy her writing (if I can) despite the lack of a shared philosophy.

Luckily for me, there's plenty to recommend these stories besides a grimly Catholic worldview. O'Connor's ear for cadence is truly breathtaking:

He asked a lot of questions that she didn't answer. He told her that he was twenty-eight years old and had lived a varied life. He had been a gospel singer, a foreman on the railroad, an assistant in an undertaking parlor, and he had come over the radio for three months with Uncle Roy and his Red Creek Wranglers. He said he had fought and bled in the Arm Service of his country and visited every foreign land, and that everywhere he had seen people that didn't care if they did a thing one way or another. He said he hadn't been raised thataway.

A fat yellow moon appeared in the branches of the fig tree as if it were going to roost there with the chickens. He said that a man had to escape to the country to see the world whole and that he wished he lived in a desolate place like this where he could see the sun go down every evening like God made it to do.

The melancholy and foreboding that steal into the atmosphere whenever anyone in these stories opens his or her mouth (and often even when they don't) is masterfully evoked and controlled. And it's a credit to O'Connor that although nearly all of her characters are deeply flawed to the point of being unsympathetic, I could usually still relate to them on some level, and doing so forced a little bit of honesty from me about times I've acted in similarly shabby ways.

Is A Good Man is Hard to Find a "book for our times"? It's an extremely well-written and thought-provoking collection of harsh yet beautiful stories, and such things are to be treasured regardless of era. More topically, it raises interesting questions about the role of religion in daily life, and could spark conversations among Americans from different regions and backgrounds.

(A Good Man is Hard to Find was my second book for the Decades '09 Challenge, representing the 1950s.)


  • What a great post! I love Flannery O'Connor's writing, and your insights here are much appreciated. Her conflicted relationship with Catholicism is a sidebar as you suggest to the main column of what I always think of with a word you used here - shabbiness. Shabbiness of the difference between what God intended and what man rendered (from the author's point of view). I feel like re-reading right now.

  • This is an extremely well-written post, worthy of The New Yorker in its prose, content, breadth, and depth. It is interesting on so many levels. You address not only Flannery O'Connor's stories but also how to evaluate a piece of literature. And I agree with you and Ben Johnson--it should be for all time. And oh yes, that is why we should read--because the writing makes our heart sing and because we will remember these characters through all the years of our life.

    I have printed this review. It is something to aspire to.


  • Thanks, Frances & Cynthia! Frances, I love spurring that urge to re-read. Cynthia, wow, thanks! I think the New Yorker editor might have excised the words "dude" and "jeesh," but I kind of like them where they are. :-)

  • I hadn't thought about Flannery O'Connor in years, Emily, but you (and she via the excerpts) make this sound like a fascinating piece of writing. I also think you helped redeem the Newsweek list a little bit for me; I had been struck by its Anglo (American & British) bias during an earlier peek at it (what, no Latin American literature speaks to our times?), but maybe there are some hidden jewels on it despite my annoyance at the exclusions.

  • Oh yes, Richard! Objections to the Anglocentrism of the list could make up a whole blog post on their own. I was tempted to get into it here, but I'm so prone to verbose introductions that dwarf the rest of my entries, that I thought it was a bad idea. Plus the topicality issue kind of trumped everything else for me. But yeah, what? HUGE levels of assumption about who the "our" in "our times" represents. Even the books written by non-Anglo-Americans are spun TO Anglo-Americans (for example, Anthony Shadid gives "insight into the ways Iraqis really think" - he's not allowed to just tell a story from an Iraqi perspective, without being a token of his entire nationality). I can DEFINITELY understand your frustration. (But, I mean, it is Newsweek. I would hardly expect too much.)

  • Very interesting that Newsweek picked this collection, and you're probably right about their reasons, but the book is much more interesting just taken as great literature rather than read in an attempt to think about our current times. I love O'Connor, although I also don't agree with her worldview, but her writing is wonderful. I find her stories bizarrely funny at times.

  • I agree, Dorothy. I chuckled ruefully throughout, particularly in the scene of the first story where the grandmother is harping on about how people in her generation were better & more respectful, and then she points and says "Look! A pickaninny!" Combination chuckle and groan.

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    link to Wolves 2011 reading list
    link to more disgust bibliography