This is Flannery O’Connor’s first book, written in 1952. It has Sparknotes, Enotes, and goodness knows how many other Notes, none of which I bothered with because I am so done with literary evaluation and all that jazz. I just read to read, for the enjoyment, and sometimes I actually learn something, too. That is always a bonus.
O’Connor, like so many of the other Southern gothic writers of the period, creates, at least for us Northerners, a somewhat surreal world of eccentric characters, and situations that are juuust that much off kilter. You know what I mean, not quite plumb, a smidge hinky.
In this story, a young man with the unlikely name of Hazel comes back from the war (and we are assuming it is the Second World War), to find his parents dead and his home deserted. He had wanted to be a preacher man like his grandfather, but the war convinced him there was no god, he becomes an atheist and sets off for the nearby town to start a new life.
He is bitter and lost, and is dismayed that everyone he meets seems to think he is a preacher, and so he decides to create a new church, The Church Without Christ.
He comes upon a blind beggar who threatens to preach unless people give him money, and he is followed by a young girl. Hazel becomes enamored of this girl and starts following them around. He meets a young man who has some kind of ability to know things, ‘wise blood’, like his daddy. He works at the local zoo, and one day takes Haz to see an exhibit which includes a shrunken and preserved small man.
Strange stuff. It turns out the blind preacher is not blind. He claimed he would blind himself with lye but couldn’t bring himself to do it, and was left with scars, but his sight in tact. Haz learns of this, and decides that he himself would actually do it, and does.
Lots of goofy characters and strange encounters, and it all makes a kind of frail sense while you are reading it, and it is only when you are finished you scrunch your nose up and say, “Eh?” O’Connor writes in Notes to the Second Edition, 1962:
It is a comic novel about a Christian malgré lui, and as such, very serious, for all comic novels that are any good must be about matters of life and death.
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.
Yeah, I know, I had to look up malgré lui too. It means ‘in spite of himself’. You’re welcome.
So… comic? For me, not so much. Well, maybe a little. See what you think.