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"Just be who you are, calm and clear and bright." - Richard Bach, Illusions: The Adventures of a Reluctant Messiah

Great Book #71: A Good Man is Hard to Find

a good man coverEverywhere I go I’m asked if I think the university stifles writers. My opinion is that they don’t stifle enough of them. There’s many a best-seller that could have been prevented by a good teacher.

–Flannery O’Connor

The first time I came across that quote, the last sentence was missing, which of course distorts the writer’s intention. For years I had the idea that Flannery O’Connor was a shameless elitist, and so I put off reading her. Later on, when I was living in Galway, I came across an old paperback copy of A Good Man Is Hard To Find at Bell, Book & Candle. It smelled slightly of mold, but that didn’t put me off, because living in Ireland your books pretty much always smell like that. I read the title story and felt like I’d been kicked in the face. I couldn’t crack the book again for almost three years.

Mrs. Pritchard could not stand an anticlimax. She required the taste of blood from time to time to keep her equilibrium.  (from “A Circle in the Fire”)

A few months ago (thanks to a recommendation from Paré) I read Ann Napolitano’s novel, A Good Hard Lookwhich is a fictionalized account of O’Connor’s life in Milledgeville, Georgia. It’s beautifully written, and–what do you know?–it got me all psyched up to re-tackle A Good Man is Hard to Find.

These short stories are, as I tweeted back when I was reading them, a tall drink of vinegar. Most of her characters are selfish and ignorant and capable of the most horrifying acts, be they violent (escaped convicts shooting a carful of people one by one) or quietly heartless (a man denying that he knows his own grandson to a bunch of strangers). People do detestable things like this every day. Does that make it human nature?

She could never be a saint, but she thought she could be a martyr if they killed her quick. (from “A Temple of the Holy Ghost”)

Reading these stories you feel dirty, exposed, raw. It’s not as if the author has pointed at some dark, cruel part of you that you’d rather keep hidden—her characters are usually so mean spirited that I’m hard pressed to see anything of myself in them at all—and yet, they resonate. I finished this collection months ago, and I haven’t brought myself to blog about it because I can’t quite figure out why they resonate. Yes, of course each story is astonishingly well written. There’s not a superfluous word in the book. On the level of craft, they are absolutely beautiful stories.

Have you ever actually had a tall drink of vinegar? I did recently, when my dad left a stainless steel pitcher he was rinsing out with vinegar on the kitchen table. Thinking it was full of water, I poured myself a glass, took a gulp, and swallowed it with eyes bulging even though my brain was screaming at me to spit it out.

I found water, real water this time, guzzled it out of a clean glass, and kept shivering and making faces for a good half hour. Well, now I know what a tall drink of vinegar tastes like, I thought. And I won’t ever forget it.

3 Comments to Great Book #71: A Good Man is Hard to Find

  1. January 12, 2012 at 1:11 pm | Permalink

    Oh Camille, I love your descriptions. Whenever I am asked to speak about O’Connor’s stories I talk about being kicked in the face, grabbed by the throat, shaken, etc. Her work impacts you, and it’s so hard to talk about.

  2. Kate's Gravatar Kate
    January 12, 2012 at 3:08 pm | Permalink

    I’m not sure I’ll ever read this book, but I sure do love that quote 😉

  3. Travis's Gravatar Travis
    January 12, 2012 at 7:50 pm | Permalink

    Dayum… What a comparison. I’ve NEVER thought of drinking vinegar, much less using that analogy for something.
    Although I did find a dead cat rotting in a field once, and thought “If I ever have to write about the smell and sight of death, I can do so honestly now.”

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Hi! I'm Camille. I only write stories that could never ever happen in real life, though I do believe in real-life magic. If we were in the same room I'd fix you a cup of tea, but for now we'll have to settle for a virtual connection. I'm really glad you're here.