Flannery O'Connor's vision of life is expressed through grotesque, often comic situations in which the principal character faces a problem of salvation: the grandmother, in the title story, confronting the murderous Misfit; a neglected four-year-old boy looking for the Kingdom of Christ in the fast-flowing waters of the river; General Sash, about to meet the final enemy.
While I enjoyed each story in this collection, a few stood out for me:
1) “A Good Man is Hard to Find” – A family and their grandmother are traveling by car to Florida for vacation. The grandmother is quite precocious, even smuggling her cat into the car, despite her son’s disapproval. She was also leery of going to Florida because she worried about running into an outlaw serial killer. When she takes her family on a wild goose chase to find an old house, her worst fear is realized, coming face to face with the serial killer.
2) “The River” – A young boy, Harry, goes with his new babysitter to a church revival where he is baptized for the first time. Harry is neglected by his parents, particularly his alcoholic mother. Once home, the boy remembers the words of the preacher – that he is somebody - and runs away from home to return to the river, to return to the feeling of self-worth that he experienced during his baptism. Of all the stories in this collection, this one touched me the most. I won’t soon forget young Harry.
3) “A Late Encounter With the Enemy” – General Sash was 104 years old, whose 62-year-old granddaughter was graduating from college. The general (who we realize later was only a major) could care less about his granddaughter’s academic accomplishment but looked forward to being featured on stage as part of the ceremony. As one of the oldest living Confederate “generals,” Sash enjoyed the limelight, especially the pretty girls who often posed with him for pictures. Upon arriving at the graduation, though, he didn’t find any pretty girls or much of the limelight, and eventually does something that no one planned on. This story had an undertone of dark humor, and I found myself smirking at the old general from time to time.
All of the stories featured in A Good Man is Hard to Find are gems – a reflection of post-World War II American South with all their doubts and insecurities. If you haven’t discovered the amazing writing style of Flannery O’Connor, then this story collection is an excellent place to start.
"General Sash was a hundred and four years old. He lived with his granddaughter, Sally Poker Sash, who was sixty-two years old and who prayed every night on her knees that he would live until her graduation from college. The General didn't give two slaps for her graduation but he never doubted he would live for it. Living had got to be such a hait with him that he couldn't conceive of any other condition. A graduation exercise was not exactly his idea of a good time, even if, as she said, he would be expected to sit on the stage in his uniform. She said there would be a long procession of teachers and students in their robes but that there wouldn't be anything to equal him in his uniform. He knew this well enough without her telling him, and as for the damm procession, it could march to hell and back and not cause him a quiver. He liked parades with floats full of Miss Americas and Miss Daytona Beaches and Miss Queen Cotton Products. He didn't have any use for processions and a procession full of schoolteachers was about as deadly as the River Styx to his way of thinking. However, he was willing to sit on the stage in his uniform so that they could see him."
Other stories include A Good Man Is Hard to Find, in which a family encounters a psychopathic killer, The Artificial Nigger, where a country boy comes to the big city of Atlanta for a visit to the place "where I come from", and The Displaced Person, in which a Polish immigrant and his family come to a small struggling farm to work, to the consternation of the whites and blacks that already toil there. These are amazing, outrageous and unforgettable stories, and I cannot recommend this collection, or her first novel, Wise Blood, highly enough.
Not all the stories are as successful as others : I would have happily edited out "A Temple of the Holy Ghost" for example, but when she strikes pay dirt is well and truly realised.
In "The Artificial Nigger" a grandfather and his grandson are visiting the big city and the grandfather is irritated by the glibness of the young man's responses always seemingly having an answer. They strike on the subject of race and the young man is adamant they he has indeed come across many black people before. Then on the train into town:
A huge coffee-colored man was coming slowly forward............Mr. Head's grip on Nelson's arm loosened: "What was that?," he asked. "A man," the boy said........."That was a nigger," Mr. Head said and sat back.....The boy slid down into the seat. "You said they were black," he said in an angry voice. "You never said they were tan. How do you expect me to know anything when you don't tell me right." "You're just ignorant is all," Mr. Head said...."
I will find myself dipping into this collection for some of the nuggets to be scraped from the river bed of her observations. On religion in the concluding story "The Displaced Person" she muses in the guise of the lead character:
....she felt that religion was essentially for those people who didn't have the brains to avoid evil without it. For people like herself, for people of gumption, it was a special occasion providing the opportunity to sing.
The ninth story, “Good Country People”, would have made the perfect title for this collection written in the late 40s and early 50s and all set deep in the bible-belt South.
This was my first foray into the unsettling, racist, often brilliant, world of Flannery O’ Connor. These are dark, disturbing tales, told with insight and a wicked edge. Yes, the casual use of the “N” word or other very derogatory terms, made me uncomfortable, especially in the story “The Artificial Nigger” but her prose is so deft and sure that even that can be overlooked.
“…but the face on the moon was a grave one. It gazed across the room and out the window where it floated above the horse stall and appeared to contemplate itself with the look of a young man who sees his old age before him”.
The collection gets its name from the first short story, and it is easy to see why it was chosen to represent (in name) this body of work. A Good Man is Hard to Find is easily one of the collection’s strongest works, following a grandmother and her family’s run-in with an escaped convict self-dubbed The Misfit. The brutality of the story’s gradual conclusion is emotionally jarring (despite its understated delivery) and threatens to stay with the reader permanently. Other stories in the collection that match the intensity and/or excellence of this piece include The River, about a neglected child’s encounter with religion, as well as The Life You Save May Be Your Own and Good Country People, both of which feature missing limbs, traveling con artists, the potential of redemption. Good Country People also includes the fall of a self-proclaimed intellectual, another of O’Conner’s favorite targets.
The weakest work of the collection is easily A Temple of the Holy Ghost, which – much like the title itself – abandons O’Conner’s normal allegorical subtext early on and instead launches into bald-faced proselytizing, eschewing the more calculated symbolism and metaphor for which O’Conner is well more known. The Artificial Nigger is almost guilty of the same, as the narrator goes to great lengths to explain the spiritual transformation of the characters at the end, but overall it isn’t enough to ruin the story of a Grandfather and Grandson’s eventful trip into “the city.”
A stroke of Good Fortune, A Circle in the Fire, and A Late Encounter with the Enemy, while not at the best of the bunch, are still solid entries that easily display O’Conner’s literary talents, and support her ongoing theme of grotesque characters, while exploring subject matter slightly removed from spiritual grace, including the arrogance of the individual’s perceived control over body (A Stroke of Good Fortune), personal history (A Late Encounter with the Enemy),, nature, and even other people (A Circle in the Fire).
Personally, the piece in O’Conner’s collection that I struggled the most with is The Displaced Person. It is an impressive short story in three parts that tackles a multitude of subjects, among them racism, xenophobia, morality, patriotism, control, pride, sloth, and yes, redemption. The story follows a widowed farm owner who takes in an immigrant family from Poland as a working tenant at the bequest of a local priest. All of O’Connor’s trademark elements are present, with all of the major characters driven by character flaws that prevent them from seeing the hypocrisy or illogic in their decision making and world view. However, O’Conner’s handling of the immigrant farm hand, Mr. Guizac, is enough of a departure from O’Conner’s norm to - at the very least – raise some questions.
Throughout the other works in this collection, there are rarely any true “innocents” on hand, and even those few characters that could be perceived as innocent, such as young Harry Ashfield in The River, still display character flaws as well as a need or desire for redemption. Mr. Gulzac, however, is never demonstrated to have any outward corruption or deficiencies. Any “flaws” ascribed to Mr. Gulzac are done so through the biased filters of the other characters, and are obviously done so erroneously out of xenophobia, jealousy, fear, or false morality. This is at least partly due to the fact that, unlike the vast majority of major characters in O’Conner’s stories, the narrator never describes any of Mr. Gulzac’s actions from his point of view. Practically all other characters are given at least a brief POV by the narrator, or at the very least have some personal backstory presented as context, but Mr. Gulzac’s own perspective is never truly presented by the narrator. Whenever we see Mr. Gulzac, it is through the eyes of another character, or through the straight-forward impersonal descriptions of the narrator. It is almost as if O’Connor (intentionally or otherwise) makes the geographically displaced Mr. Gulzac a displaced entity in the story, somehow not even belonging in the narrative itself. This emotional distance from the reader mirrors the distance that separates him from other characters, but without the warped prism of bias and prejudice that O’Conner’s other characters exhibit, this distance lends Mr. Gulzac a perception of innocence by omission; other characters reveal their flawed logic and morality through the narrator, but all we are shown of Mr. Gulzac is the hard work and competency that draws the ire and envy of others.
This distance from Mr. Gulzac in the story highlights my other problem with The Displaced Person, the story’s ending. O’Conner’s other stories tend to end after the climactic or transformative action occurs, with the redemption or ultimate results left open and undetermined (The River might be the only other exception to this, depending on your own interpretation). The Displaced Person, however, takes the reader beyond the tragic climax of the ending and offers an uncharacteristic denouement that delivers a level of closure. It almost feels as if O’Connor feels compelled to offer up some semblance of justice – a rarity in the O’Connor universe – for the treatment of that rarest of all O’Connor character, the innocent.
Of course, these are not major faults in The Displaced Man as they are perceived variations of the collected works, and with the possible exception of A Temple of the Holy Ghost, every story in this collection is powerful enough to stand on its own. If you are unfamiliar with the Southern Gothic genre, this collection of stories is an excellent place to start.
In A Good Man is Hard to Find, a family prepares for and sets off for a vacation in Florida. Even Grandma, who has much to say about how much better it would be to visit family in east Tennessee and how the trip might be dangerous, what with escaped felons and other perils, comes along to narrate the ride. And off they go, stopping at bbq joints for lunch and staring at the sights outside the car windows. It begins as one sort of story and ends as quite another and it's one of the most brilliant things I've ever read.
Each story is finely honed and reads as surprisingly contemporary, for all it's written about a rural South that is long gone. O'Connor is insightful and cutting and unafraid to allow the worst to happen. There is a dark comedy underlying her work and a deep understanding of people, albeit a somewhat grim one. People in this collection die. They're drowned, or shot, or simple run over. They look into someone else's eyes and see how badly they've misjudged things. They are callous and cruel and lonely and disillusioned. Their hopes are inevitably dashed, usually because of their own flaws. There's so much packed into each of these tightly written stories that each feels like an entire world.
O'Conenr wrote her stories to perfection (good examples for creative writing classes) and every detail has a meaning.Some of those are pure mesmerizing masterpieces.
The stories always ends with a revalation of hope, but the outcome of it is something for the reader's imagination.
As said,things are not as necessary bad as they seem.
O'Connor sets her stories in the rural South and populates them with flawed, grotesque, and twisted characters - this is not the imagined noble, glorious, and chivalric South, but rather the real South of the poor and middling whites of the 1950's(race is mostly in the background). She catches the nuances of human behavior. Her stories have powerful, unexpected and disturbing endings.
Pick up a story and read just one paragraph and you will be hooked.
"The old woman and her daughter were sitting on their porch when they saw Mr. Shiftlet come up their road for the first time. The old woman slid to the edge of her chair and leaned forward, shading her eyesfrom the piercing sunset with her hand. The daughter could not see far in front of her and continued to play with her fingers. Although the old woman lived in this desolate spot with only her daughter and she had never seen Mr. Shiftlet before, she could tell, even from a distance, that he was a tramp and no one to be afraid of..."
Absolutely the highest recommendation.
One sentence summaries:
“A Good Man is Hard to Find” – Dysfunctional family with bossy grandmother get lost on a trip to Florida and end up getting murdered by a ruthless gangster. First appearance of a boy named John Wesley.
“The River” – Boy witnesses baptisms in the river, tries to baptize himself, drowns.
“The Life You Save May Be Your Own” – Drifter charms old woman doing fix-it projects, marries her blind daughter, then abandons the girl at a diner.
“A Stroke of Good Fortune” – Woman climbs staircase in apartment building, tired and dead to the world, realizing she’s pregnant again when she reaches the top.
“A Temple of the Holy Ghost” – Two girls from convent school go to a carnival and are observed by a lonely younger girl in a story full of Catholic imagery.
“She would have to be a saint because that was the occupation that included everything you could know; and yet she knew she would never be a saint. … She could never be a saint, but she thought she could be a martyr if they killed her quick.” -p. 89-90.
“The sun was a huge red ball like an elevated Host drenched in blood and when it sank out of sight, it left a line in the sky like a red clay road hanging over the trees.” P. 97
“The Artificial Nigger” – A father takes his son to Atlanta to teach him a lesson about the wicked ways of the city, they get loss, the father denies the son, they find their way home and vow to never go back.
“A Circle in the Fire” – A boy brings his friends back to a farm where his father used to work and proceed to run roughshod over the grounds and terrorize the family.
“A Late Encounter With the Enemy” – Woman takes excessive pride in her Confederate veteran grandfather making a spectacle of him during her graduation during which he dies on stage. Second appearance of a boy named John Wesley.
“Good Country People” – Bible salesman reveals his true nature to young woman and steals her wooden leg.
“The Displaced Person” – Dysfunctional goings-on among the hired hands – black & white – and a family of Polish refugees all working for a widow on a Southern farm.
This is, I think, the third or fourth time I've read through this book, and I still can't decide what she thinks of the human experiment. On the one hand, she paints her characters with such exquisite detail, putting forth their quirks and foibles in such a way that you can't help but know that she's studied the world around her with tenderness and affection. On the other hand, however, having set these people up like bowling pins, she immediately proceeds to knock them down. She so completely shreds her characters, using their own beliefs and worldviews to tear them apart with an almost unimaginable caustic fury.
I love this book. Ms. O'Connor's apocalyptic vision of an America whose destruction comes from the depths of its own soul rings painfully true. Every character in this book thinks he or she has found the good man of the book's title, and they all think that they are that man. If that isn't America in a nutshell, I don't know what is.
I tend to avoid short stories because they never seem to stick with me. Usually I can read a dozen of them and forget them by the next day, but this book was different. O’Connor’s stories are drenched in a thick southern mood and filled with morose characters who are disenchanted with life. She writes achingly realistic portrayals of men and women from all walks of life; bitter elderly grandparents, a wandering tramp roped into settling down, a neglected boy, a crippled young woman, a Confederate general, etc.
One story is a poignant reminder that racism is something you learn, not something you are born with. Those horrible prejudices are something we acquire as we watch other’s actions. Another introduces us to a Bible salesman who isn’t all that he appears to be. Yet another tells the story of a family on a road trip and the strange men who cross their path with devastating consequences. In each one O’Connor captures the dark underbelly of human nature, whether it’s malice, racism, neglect, etc.
BOTTOM LINE: Even if you don’t love short stories, give this one a chance! These small portraits of Southern life pack a powerful punch for their size.
“He didn’t have any use for history because he never expected to meet it again.”
“Well, it takes all kinds of people to make the world go ‘round. It’s very good we aren’t all alike.”