O Connor, Flannery O Connor, Flannery

O Connor, Flannery

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Everything That Rises Must Converge At Flannery

Jul 13, 2000 (Updated Mar 16, 2002)
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Rated a Very Helpful Review

Pros:We'll never see another talent as white-hot, sharp-edged and scary-funny as Miz O'Connor's

Cons:To write anything in this space would amount to blasphemy

The Bottom Line: "Everywhere I go, I'm asked if I think the universities stifle writers. My opinion is that they don't stifle enough of them."---Flannery O'Connor


Flannery O’Connor.

The two words shine like a pair of headlights in the dark highway of my life. To say the Southern writer has had some impact on my life would be like saying a flaming meteor the size of Manhattan slamming into the earth would have “some impact.”

Just writing her name causes me to quiver, to shiver down to the cellar of my soul. I regard her name with such awe that, were I one of those early-century monks who had to do a full body wash and change the ink in their pens each time they wrote the word “God,” I would be changing printer cartridges each time I wrote Miz O’Connor’s name. In terms of influencing my own writing—the dozen or so short stories and one as-yet-unpublished novel sitting in my desk drawer—she is the blinding sun on my road to Damascus.

Make no mistake—she is often as unfathomable as that holy voice on the road Saint Paul (nee Saul) traveled. Unprepared readers coming to O’Connor are in for the shock of their lives as they encounter all manner of grotesque characters who collide with religion in ways that slyly unbuckle the Bible belt. Her stories are filled with the racist and the pious, the ugly and the profane, the horrifying and the hilarious. A woman is gored by a bull. A Bible salesman steals a girl’s artificial leg. A boy worships a museum’s mummy he believes is the new Jesus.

There’s a profound and beautiful purity at the heart of O’Connor’s writing; but to get to it, you must first meet the obscene and startling characters who populate her works.

All this from the pen of a plain-faced Southern belle—a girl who looked like she could be the dateless, lonely spinster who never went out with the rest of the secretarial pool, the prim church lady who, potluck after potluck, brought Jell-o fruit salad then stood demurely in a corner of the church kitchen. Ah, but what a brilliant, churning, seething mind was contained behind those homely cat’s-eye glasses!

Flannery O’Connor was only 39 when she died in 1964 of lupus at her mother’s farm near Milledgeville, Georgia. In those brief years, she had written many stories which are now the pillars of textbook anthologies. She also wrote two of the most influential religious novels of this or any other generation: Wise Blood and The Violent Bear It Away. Influential, at least, to me.

I have had many writing instructors who taught me everything I need to know about plot, coherence and character. With all due respect, none of them amounts to a hill of beans when compared to what the long-dead spinster from Milledgeville has taught me about the sentences roiling around in my brain, the words I wrestle to pin onto the page (mostly to my dissatisfaction).

I believe there are times in our lives when we encounter the holy apart from the church, the folded hands, the crackling pages of the Bible. Sometimes, we round a corner and run smack dab into a religious experience like it was a lamppost in the middle of the sidewalk.

The best religious conversions always come in the guise of the everyday. If you are a young impressionable girl, maybe it’s being dazzled by Tom Cruise’s billion-watt smile up on the big screen; if you are a first-year law student, maybe it’s reading—really reading—the First Amendment for the first time; if you are a writer or a reader, maybe it’s stumbling across a writer like John Steinbeck or Gabriel Garcia Marquez or James Joyce on a forgotten shelf of the library. Anything that stops your life in its tracks, takes you by the shoulder, gives you a rough shake, then growls, “No, not that direction! This direction! Follow me.”

I can remember the exact moment I rounded the corner and ran smack dab into Flannery O’Connor.

In November 1985, I was an undergraduate student at the University of Oregon enrolled in a course called The American Novel. We’d started with Charles Brockden Brown’s Wieland, blazed a path through James Fenimore Cooper, continued through Hawthorne and Melville and now, with the end of the term approaching, we charged down the final stretch into the 20th century. The next-to-last book on our reading list was O’Connor’s The Violent Bear It Away.

I had (and still have) a cheap Signet paperback copy which combined both of the books published in her short lifetime (Wise Blood and The Violent Bear It Away) plus the posthumous collection of short stories (Everything That Rises Must Converge). For some reason, that garish-covered and battered-spined book always stood out from the rest of my course books that semester. For weeks, it sat there on the shelf in the shoebox-sized married student housing into which the university had seen fit to squeeze my wife, my newborn son and I.

For six weeks, I eyed that book warily, never once opening the front cover and getting a taste of what was inside, vowing to wait until we reached that point in the syllabus where we all dove headlong into The Violent Bear It Away. That paperback sat there on the little bookshelf I made from boards and cinderblocks and, I swear to you, sometimes when I tiptoed out to the refrigerator in the middle of the night for a glass of milk, I swear to you, I could hear it humming. Yes, that little book was so vibrant, it hummed. This, of course, made me all the more frightened to peek inside.

But when the day arrived and the professor announced, “Next time, Flannery O’Connor!”—his voice tolling like a bell—then I knew the inevitable was upon me.

I turned to page 1 and read:
Francis Marion Tarwater’s uncle had been dead for only half a day when the boy got too drunk to finish digging his grave and a Negro named Buford Munson, who had come to get a jug filled, had to finish it and drag the body from the breakfast table where it was still sitting and bury it in a decent and Christian way, with the sign of its Saviour at the head of the grave and enough dirt on top to keep the dogs from digging it up.

With that one sentence (yes, one sentence!), so completely packed with necessary information and the promise of even greater things to come, my earth stopped spinning, paused, then started rotating in the opposite direction. My hair stood on end, follicles like exclamation points. Water flowed uphill. Clock hands whirred in a counter-clockwise direction. Somewhere in America, a little old lady helped a Boy Scout across the street.

Saint Paul had nothing on me. When I finally got back on my feet, my eyes still burning, I continued to read about fourteen-year-old Tarwater and his dead grandfather. And I kept on reading until the sun came up and my baby squalled and my wife rose with a groan for another day’s feeding. I wanted to get up and help her, but I couldn’t. I was paralyzed with fear and trembling and everything else that takes place in your body when you realize your life is setting out on a new course. My now-wise blood was starting to tingle with bubbles.

The Violent Bear It Away, with all its horror and humor, spoke to me in the deepest onion layer of my soul. It is an odd, shocking novel which begins with a death (the old man, a modern-day, bellowing John the Baptist who raises his grandson to be a prophet) and moves, inch by inch, toward rebirth (that of Tarwater, the reluctant Jonah). It is, among other things, a satire on modern psychology and old-time religion. Most importantly, it is a primer for writers like me on how to wield language like a razor blade.

I sat there, stunned and dry-mouthed, reading The Violent Bear It Away as quickly as I could. O’Connor’s firecracker language seemed to catapult me from that first startling paragraph all the way to the final, blazing-hot words of the novel:
By midnight he had left the road and the burning woods behind him and had come out on the highway once more. The moon, riding low above the field beside him, appeared and disappeared, diamond-bright, between patches of darkness. Intermittently the boy’s jagged shadow slanted across the road ahead of him as if it cleared a rough path toward his goal. His singed eyes, black in their deep sockets, seemed already to envision the fate that awaited him but he moved steadily on, his face set toward the dark city, where the children of God lay sleeping.

The End. But, really, the beginning of a fresh and green period of my life. Flannery O’Connor had jiggled something loose inside that gland of my brain I call the Inspir-muse, that place that secretes equal parts inspiration and voice-mails from my Muse. The Inspir-muse stretched, yawned, then went straight to work.

One thing you should know…Prior to reading O’Connor, I’d been writing stories—really boring stories—about men and women who stood around and carried on dull conversations. I had no idea who these characters were, these pale cardboard people I created. These earlier fictions were full of a young writer’s mistakes—flashy, self-indulgent language; dialogue full of clichés; climaxes that seemed to end abruptly like bad punch lines. Nothing was coming out right. My Inspir-muse had faulty wiring.

Flannery O’Connor, my greatest teacher, saw to it that my brain corrected itself when she wrote sentences like: The poor girl’s face was blue with acne and Mrs. Turpin thought how pitiful it was to have a face like that at that age and His black eyes, glassy and still, reflected depth on depth his own stricken image of himself, trudging into the distance in the bleeding stinking mad shadow of Jesus and descriptions like a rat-colored car and a glare-blue suit. When my eyes encounter writing like that, something large and exciting moves inside me like icebergs calving.

Fueled by what I read in that cheap Signet paperback (I subsequently went through Wise Blood and Everything That Rises Must Converge like flames through a Kleenex factory), I started writing stories filled with oddball characters who did things like vomit in the middle of their baptisms or buy black velvet paintings of Jesus at roadside stands out in the Wyoming desert. For the first time in my life, I was excited about what I was writing and the words just seemed to tumble out unfettered. Best of all, I knew these characters and the terrible, loving, vibrant God who hovered over them.

When, a year later, I discovered her collected essays on writing, Mystery and Manners, it was my second startling revelation. As a young struggling writer and an equally struggling Christian, I treated these essays like they were illuminated manuscripts—especially ones like “The Church and the Fiction Writer” and “The Nature and Aim of Fiction.” Flannery seemed to be sitting down at the desk with me, delivering a five-step writing lesson in that shy Southern murmur of hers.

The novelist with Christian concerns will find in modern life distortions which are repugnant to him, and his problem will be to make these appear as distortions to an audience which is used to seeing them as natural; and he may well be forced to take ever more violent means to get his vision across to this hostile audience…You have to make your vision apparent by shock—to the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost-blind you draw large and startling figures.
—The Fiction Writer and His Country

I had found my Gospel According to Flannery. Suddenly, I wasn’t afraid to write with large and startling figures.

How much of my raised-from-the-dead Inspir-muse was due to Flannery O’Connor? I’d like to think the answer to that is “all of it,” but the truth is, she was probably just there at that intersection at the right time, directing my Inspir-muse down a side street and into a better flow of traffic. Maybe I was primed for the Gospel According to Flannery. Who knows?

One thing is for certain, when I read a passage like this, from the story “The Enduring Chill” (in which an invalid pining away in his childhood bedroom sees the Holy Ghost in a water stain), my whole body starts to secrete excitement:

He lay for some time staring at the water stains on the gray walls. Descending from the top molding, long icicle shapes had been etched by leaks and, directly over his bed on the ceiling, another leak had made a fierce bird with spread wings. It had an icicle crosswise in its beak and there were smaller icicles depending from its wings and tail. It had been there since his childhood and had always irritated him and sometimes had frightened him. He had often had the illusion that it was in motion and about to descend mysteriously and set the icicle on his head.

Enduring chill? Hardly. Flannery O’Connor has left me with an enduring warmth, like a tongue of fire licking the air just above my head.


[This epinion was written as part of a Favorite Author Write-Off, organized by member mshawpyle who observes a birthday of indeterminate years today. Our original mission, from Mr. Pyle, was to celebrate the one writer who “has most affected, influenced, moved, molded, or otherwise impressed you.” Please seek out the reviews of my fellow Epinionators on this same date as they similarly discuss their favorite authors. Including mshawpyle, they are: andy, Arazim, buffoonery, caconti, caravan70, conradd, cornelia, CurtisEdmonds, emlin, endora60, ErgoPropterHoc, erik_kosberg, expono, forkids, halfsweet, happy2000usa, jasonkirk, jrk, JMB623, kcfoxy, kchowell, kimmiko, Lambira, Leah, kurt_messick, mgreber, stonehousellc, stract, sweeper, sweetpaulie, and tomgray. I know their essays will be well worth the mouse-click.]


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