One of my reading projects for the year is to read all of O’Connor’s fiction. I have read A Good Man is Hard to Find several years ago. But I knew I wasn’t really getting all of the meaning of the short stories. One of the reasons I want to read O’Connor is because I am looking for books that require a bit of struggle. Not because difficult books are ‘better’ because they are difficult. But because books that require something of the reader use different intellectual muscles than those that are laid out more clearly. I tend to read a lot of non-fiction. Books that while they may be academically difficult, are not intended to have layered shades of meaning. Fiction and poetry does often have layers and I am trying to work on some of those intellectual muscles.
Last year I picked up the short biography, The Terrible Speed of Mercy and I am currently reading A Subversive Gospel: Flannery O’Connor and the Reimagining of Beauty, Goodness and Truth. Previously I also read O’Connor’s graduate school Prayer Journal.
A Subversive Gospel is one of those books that I want to read more of, an interpretive guide. It is not a biography, although it has biographical details, it is about O’Connor’s writing, theology and philosophy. (It is also a reworked dissertation.) A Subversive Gospel has been very helpful at understanding O’Connor and their vision of writing so that I can understand the books later. But I was nearly 75% of the way through A Subversive Gospel and I have not read one of the novels, so I quickly listened to Wise Blood, not so much for the story, but to get a sense of what her novels felt like before I finished A Subversive Gospel.
One of O’Connor’s most quoted phrases about her writing is, “…to the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost blind you draw large and startling figures.” This is very similar to what James KA Smith says he is doing in his attempts at being an alien anthropologist that is exploring the mall and the ball park to understand what cultural liturgies are driving those spaces.
“…my goal is to try to make strange what is so familiar to us precisely in order to help us see what is at stake in formative practices that are part of the mall experience.(p23 of Desiring the Kingdom)
Wise Blood is not a standard country boy comes to the big city story with standard middle of the 20th century characters. First of all, I listened to the audiobook, but it was one I did not leave running when litter ears were around like I often do. This is full of crude ugly language, swearing and derogatory comments. But lots of books that are not classics have bad language. (And there is a real beauty to the language even when it is crude.)
There are three main threads to the story. Hazel Motes is the young veteran that is coming to the city. He has a chip on his shoulder from the death of his mother and his world not being what he wants. He was been told he will be a preacher by his mother, but he can no longer believe (or not believe) in Jesus.
Enoch Emory is an 18 year old newcomer to the city, recently kicked out the house by his father. He is incredibly lonely and eager for anyone to be his friend. Enoch follows his animal instincts (as a guard at the zoo). He finds comfort in being antagonistic toward the animals, leering at and making crude comments to the women that find him repulsive and being sure that at the same time he is bound for greatness.
The final thread is the ‘blind’ preacher Asa Hawks and his daughter Sabbath. When Hazel Motes sees this street preacher he is inspired to create the Church Without Christ and he becomes a street preacher himself preaching about the unreality of Christ.
The characters careen into one another, so interested in themselves that they miss the others. The violence here is real (there are several murders) but the violence against the personhood of the other seems even worse.
The audiobooks is fine and I would recommend it, but because of the structure of the story I kept missing transitions and details. I was reading for the feel more than the story and went in with the intention to read this again in print before the end of the year. But I think I would probably start with the print version. There is also a 1979 John Huston film that is adapted from the book, but I have not watched that yet.