The first volume I completed during my Bradbury Challenge was A Good Man is Hard to Find by Flannery O’Connor. I chose it because of O’Connor’s reputation as a master of the short story. I am a bit nervous about writing this post, enough that I am calling it a reflection instead of a review. A friend reminded me earlier that as a writer of popular fiction I need to judge literary fiction differently as it has different goals.
In fairness to O’Connor, she does not bore me as much modern literary fiction often does. In fact, in the context of her time, I’m not sure O’Connor is considered literary fiction. In terms of the modern market, I believe that is a correct placement. While the stories did not lose my attention I did find some to be somewhat pointless. I am sure there is plenty of deep symbolism I missed. In particular, the title story as well as “The Artificial Nigger” left me perplexed. What was the point of the whole exercise? More reflection may bring shed light on those stories as several others only began to piece themselves together several days after reading them. “The River”, in particular, took some time to come into focus.
My ongoing complaint about stories without a point, however, does not diminish the value I found in reading all the stories. O’Connor is excellent with details and is adept at following the rule of Chekhov’s Gun. The most straightforward example is the cat in the title story. She is also good at weaving in incidents we all know, or at least her audience knew, without mentioning them. The premier in “A Late Encounter with the Enemy” is an excellent example which has the added advantage of having occurred just blocks from my office. I even pass the location during my lunchtime walks on some occasions.
Three stories of the ten grabbed me and held on when I read them. “A Late Encounter with the Enemy” is among them. The relationship between daughter and father resembled others I have observed. In particular, I was reminded of an older married couple where I know he had a habit of turning off his hearing aids when she got going. I could not help but have sympathy with the old man’s practical ways concerning life. I also could not see too many people and their need to puff their egos in the daughter’s preening. The end gave a marvelous sense of life just catching up.
“A Stroke of Good Fortune” was filled with a winking humor. The presence of a mostly humorous nature places it alone in the collection. Ruby’s denial, perhaps even naiveté, about her state contrasts well with everyone’s knowledge. It is not the most powerful story in the collection but lacks the malevolence that characterizes much of the collection. With that lack, it was a brief palette cleanser in the context of the whole.
The final story of the collection is also the one which grabbed me the most. “The Displaced Person” reads like a set of parables. The idea of O’Connor’s story as parables is common among literary critics. There are good reasons to believe this given the prominence of O’Connor’s Catholic faith. This story reads not just as one parable but as a set. Perhaps an intersection of parables is a better description. Mrs. McIntyre’s charity is a guise for finding more pliable workers. Mr. Shortly does an interesting take on the jealousy of Cain to Mr. Guizac’s Able, but the seven generations who are cursed are not his children but Mrs. McIntyre and the farm in general. What is very telling is that despite Mrs. McIntyre’s falseness the priest is the one person who does not abandon her. The continued presence of God, and thus hope, even for those who have killed is a central tenant of Christianity and therefore our parables intersect with the loss of the world but the gain of the soul.
I do not know that I will read any more O’Connor. She is not difficult to read, but she is not light reading. If I do, I will set time for more reflection on each story. Even if I do not read more O’Connor, I read this collection as part of filling up for writing via the Bradbury Challenge. It was an excellent choice.