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
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