Everyone loves a happy ending, but the sad ones are way more interesting. That’s the basic premise of every story by the incredibly talented Flannery O’Connor. She was one of the greats of Catholic fiction, so for my last regular review for ATX Catholic, I encourage you to give her a try.
The first of her stories I read was either “Good Country People” or “A Good Man Is Hard to Find.” I read them both for one of my English major classes back in undergrad, and they helped me see that short fiction is not just for fat English textbooks. Those two stories are the standout features of the collection “A Good Man Is Hard to Find and Other Stories,” although each story shines and shocks on its own.
It’s difficult to review short stories without giving away the endings, and with O’Connor, the endings are the best. She has the most skillful way of dropping the reader into the story, building up the characters and the intensity, and finally bringing the whole thing crashing down into rubble. Yes, every story has a twist. Some are twistier than others, and some are more horrible than others, but every story fits into O’Connor’s beautiful Southern gothic style.
- In the title story, O’Connor introduces the collection with the perfect balance of limited omniscience. We know exactly what we need to of what runs through each character’s head and not one word more. The sharp turn toward relentless violence indicates what kind of stories you’re reading. Right off the bat, if you were looking for happy stories, you know after this one that you have picked up the wrong book.
- “A Stroke of Good Fortune” employs a bit of Ernest Hemingway’s iceberg method, hinting with tiny clues at the immense depth under the surface. It reminded me of his story “Hills Like White Elephants” in particular. The twist is both bold and subtle at the same time, and we’re left wondering what the protagonist will do.
- One of my favorite characters is 104-year-old General Sash in “A Late Encounter with the Enemy.” I am terrible at figuring out what’s going to happen in any story, but I figured this one out, and the ending still had a surprise waiting for me. It illustrates the way that obstinately living in the past can collide with the reality of the present and the uncertainty of the future.
- The lines about “Jew singing” and martyrdom are worth the price of admission for “A Temple of the Holy Ghost.”
- Finally, “Good Country People” might be tied with the title story for the most horrifying ending. It’s just so good.
The collection does carry some significant negatives for the modern Catholic reader. It has numerous and initially alarming uses of “the N-word,” including in one of the story titles. It is never used in any of the senses it is today, and its impact was different in the 1950’s when the collection was published. Your mileage may vary. There are also some offensive Catholic references. None are specific enough to be malicious, and none come from characters we’re supposed to like. They are more eye roll-inducing than “close the book”-inducing.
Personally, I feel that the positives outweigh the negatives. O’Connor’s stories are dark and violent, but they are told elegantly and gracefully. There are numerous complimentary references to Catholic and Christian spirituality, some of which I honestly would not have understood if I weren’t a churchgoing, old-school Catholic myself. In “The River,” a young boy sees a picture of carpenter in a white dress with a circle on his head, but he doesn’t know who it is. There is a mention of St. Raphael visiting Tobit, and even Eucharistic adoration makes an appearance.
O’Connor does an amazing job of illustrating the ways that old-fashioned life and values meet the horrors of contemporary reality. She died young, so the world will never know what a longer contribution to the literary world might have done for the broad artistic acceptance of Catholics. She shows us that you don’t have to say “Jesus” all the time or write stories where everyone converts at the end to write like a Catholic. You need only stick to the truth, suffering and all.
This is my last regular review for ATX Catholic. It has been a wonderful experience to work with so many publishers and with you, dear readers. You can always find me at my personal blog, Lindsay Loves. Grace and blessings!