Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Wise Blood

Flannery O'Connor's Wise Blood has sometimes been described as dark comedy, sometimes simply as satire. Whichever description I eventually decide suits it best, this grotesque 1952 first novel is so disturbing that its characters and their fates will stay with me for a long time.

Haze Motes, recently released from the army after suffering a wound in Korea, returns to his home state of Tennessee where he finds himself, much to his irritation, taken for a preacher by many of the strangers whom he meets. This is an easy mistake to make since Motes has recently exchanged his uniform for the type of suit and hat commonly worn by preachers of the time and the fact that he carries himself like, and has many of the mannerisms and attitudes of, his grandfather, a onetime country preacher himself. But Motes is angered by the very idea of being mistaken for a preacher because he is repelled by the whole concept of Christianity.

After encountering a street preacher, and being disgusted by what he saw and heard, Hazel Motes founds his Church Without Christ, a church based on realism, one in which the blind do not see, the deaf do not hear, the lame do not walk, and the dead remain dead. Not too surprisingly, Haze's message attracts to him the kind of people who either become obsessed with his message or want to turn the Church Without Christ into a vehicle to put easy money into their pockets. There are Enoch Emery, an 18-year old so lonely in the big city that he sees the new church and its preacher as essential to his survival, Sabbath Lily a 15-year old abandoned by her charlatan preacher father, Asa Hawkes, and who sets out to seduce Motes, Hoover Shoates who hires his own false prophet and starts a rival church, and the landlady who decides to marry Motes in order to share his monthly government check.

Flannery O'Connor's writing seldom, if ever, provides the reader with anything like a "happy ending" and Wise Blood, her first novel, is no exception. It is filled with characters who focus exclusively on self-gratification and who are not the least concerned about what they have to say or do in order to get what they want from those who have it. Even the minor characters, in particular the police, are not to be trusted as Motes so painfully discovers near the end of the book. But along the way, O'Connor provides memorable scenes that reflect her sense of humor and irony. I won't soon forget the images of the small, newspaper-wrapped mummy being rapidly carried through the rainy streets after being stolen from a museum nor the man in the gorilla suit who terrified the couple in the woods with whom he only wanted to shake hands.

Rated at: 4.0

10 comments:

  1. Southern Grotesque. Perfectly describes Wise Blood, doesn't it? Reading O'Connor's letters has made me want to revisit many of her works, but especially this one.

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  2. I've always found books like this, that blend humor and tragedy, very challenging--maybe because it's hard to make an emotional connection. But it sounds like an intense and memorable reading experience!

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  3. Those two words do pretty much sum up her work, Jenclair, I agree. I still haven't tackled those letters yet, other than to take a quick look at some of the early ones, but it's on my "to do" list...

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  4. Gentle Reader, I have somewhat the same problem...even with more straight forward satire I sometimes begin to wonder how much exaggeration is being used to make the point and how much should be taken at face value. I'm too literal-minded for the more complicated satire, and a mix of humor and tragedy can make me uncomfortable sometimes. This was one of those times.

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  5. Thanks for the note about the Chekhov site. I've been meaning to read a story or two on-screen, so your reminder was helpful...

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  6. I'm a proud Christian who's growing weary of having my faith belittled; is this a book I'd get annoyed with?

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  7. J. Anne, on the contrary. Flannery O'Connor was a devout and highly orthodox Catholic. Wise Blood is a satire -- of atheists. It is also a story of divine grace. The best statement of what Wise Blood is about is that which Flannery O'Connor herself wrote, as the preface to the second edition:


    "Wise Blood has reached the age of ten and is still alive. My critical powers are just sufficient to determine this, and I am gratified to be able to say it. The book was written with zest and, if possible, it should be read that way. 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. Wise Blood was written by an author congenitally innocent of theory, but one with certain preoccupations. That belief in Christ is to some a matter of life and death has been a stumbling block for some readers who would prefer to think it a matter of no great consequence. For them, Hazel Motes's integrity lies in his trying with such vigor to get rid of the ragged figure who moves from tree to tree in the back of his mind. For the author, Hazel's integrity lies in his not being able to do so. Does one's integrity ever lie in what he is not able to do? I think that usually it does, for 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."

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  8. Anne, I see that "anonymous" has answered your question and I agree that you wouldn't be offended by the book. It is definitely the non-believers who take a beating in this one.

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  9. Wow. You have set me on the trail of this book, Sam.
    I have read Flannery's Short Stories [one of which, where Enock appears, gorilla-suit-clad!].... But this novel sounds like just the thing for me.
    Great synopsis and review. Thanks.
    -- Cip

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  10. I hope you enjoy the book, Cip. It's a bit unusual, in my opinion, but it certainly represents the Flannery O'Connor style well. She is definitely an unforgettable writer.

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