Nov 022008

I have been reading Flannery O’Connor, which seldom fails to please me as a reader. As a writer, I’m usually slack jawed at the amount of control she maintains throughout her work. For example, I consider both “A Good Man is Hard to Find” and “Good Country People” to be nearly flawless short stories. They remain prime examples of the wide range of thoughts and emotions a writer can produce in a reader within a limited textual space.

One of the ways O’Connor accomplishes this is by maintaining a constant undercurrent of tension throughout each piece. Take the dynamics of the family in “Good Man,” where the reader is presented with a strange yet familiar narrative of a road trip with grandma in tow. The family is of course awful, which makes their familiarity all that much more uncomfortable. If the reader is not somewhat sickened and intrigued by seemingly mundane journey to Florida, they will not be ready for the final encounter with The Misfit. The final encounter would seem contrived if you read it as the ending to most stories. Instead, the reader grits their teeth as each member of that annoying tribe is led away. When I read “Good Man” as a writer, it is the “mundane tension” that I marvel at, the masterful way O’Connor manages to get me from the living room to the wrong road without losing my attention.

This same tension is present and used to effect in “Good Country People.” The reader, once again, is presented with a straightforward setting, which is inhabited what could be written as rather boring characters. However, there is something strange and compelling about the relationship between the three women, and it keeps the reader’s appetite wet until the bible salesman arrives. The resulting tryst with Hulga, and her betrayal is effective because of the tension which builds up to her abandonment. As a reader, I find myself relieved that she is abandoned. If you know this writer’s work, you probably feel relieved for Hulga as well. She comes away faring much better than most of O’Connor’s characters who are usually killed off on the last page or die muttering to themselves in some kind of destitute state. The fellow she is with could have done much worse than run off with her leg and her dignity. OK, that’s arguable, but that’s exactly why the story works. Joy/Hulga, the superior know-it-all, is left blind and temporarily helpless in a hay loft. What’s worse, she’s been left there to meditate upon sure knowledge that she’s been blind all along. The reader has no idea what Hulga will do with the rest of her life or how she will deal with the questions of Mrs. Freeman and Mrs. Hopewell.

When I finish an O’Connor story, I often feel relief to have a second chance at life. Often, she holds the reader gently for the first 2/3rds of the story before beginning to apply pressure that grows excruciating near the end. The dénouement seldom grants the reader anything more than a few moments to gather their bearings in regards to their own reaction to the dark irony that has just occurred on the page before the story ends. In other words, I often feel the end of her narratives have an abruptness to them but it is not awkward or unwarranted.