Thirty-eight years ago, when I was a junior in high school, my creative writing teacher loaned me a short-story anthology she had been assigned a few years earlier in college. I read the book cover to cover as though it were a continuous narrative but I remember with certainty only one story in the book: “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” a title which until then I had known only as a song Bessie Smith had recorded in 1927. The author, of course, was Flannery O’Connor, who had already been dead for four years when I read her story. She died at 39, the same age at which the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. had died earlier in 1968. O’Connor has now been dead longer than she was alive.
I stayed up too late reading the story, in bed, with the aid of a gooseneck lamp, on a school night. I read it like a thriller, and I found it shocking and thrilling, as I still do. O’Connor is a writer with a rare gift for disturbing or offending some part of the sensibility of almost any serious reader. She still makes me uncomfortable, with my pride, glibness and failure to believe. In 1952, she published Wise Blood, her first novel. Ten years later, two years before her death from lupus, she added an author’s note to the second edition:
“The book was written with zest and, if possible, it should be read that way. It is a comic novel about a Christian malgre lui, and as such, very serious, for all comic novels that are any good must be about matters of life and death.”
In college, an English professor, a former Trappist monk, dismissed O’Connor’s style as flat and uninteresting. Compared to Nabokov’s prose, which the professor (and O’Connor, for that matter) admired, O’Connor’s seems superficially pedestrian, lacking a pyrotechnic dimension. I let the professor’s casual comment fester (why do we remember such things, and why do they seem to matter?) and I let O’Connor slip into the realm of remembered but conveniently ignored writers. This was a tribute of sorts. I’m reading her again, for many reasons, not least because once I started I couldn’t stop. Her vision is astringent. It makes no excuses for anyone and exposes most of the rationalizations and other arrangements we make in order to get through life a little more placidly. Convenience means nothing to O’Connor. Later in the same note to Wise Blood, she writes:
“Does one’s integrity ever lie in what he is not able to do? I think that usually it does, for free will does not mean one will, but many wills conflicting in one man. Freedom cannot be conceived simply. It is a mystery and one which a novel, even a comic novel, can only be asked to deepen.”