It is STILL raining here so the rainy day reads have continued in full swing. I finished Joanna Scott’s Tourmaline last night and will be gathering my thoughts for a post tomorrow or Wednesday. This was a lovely, ambitious book that gave me something to think about as well as an unfamiliar countryside to get lost in.
But I wanted to write today about one of the books I finished last week – The Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers. What a delight to discover this classic American writer! Before one of my book groups picked the book for our July read I’d never heard of McCullers, a fact I’m happy to remedy now that I see what an incredible writer she was.
McCullers was born in 1917 and wrote The Heart is a Lonely Hunter at the age of 22. She continued writing, despite several bouts of serious illness and depression, until her death of a brain hemorrhage at the age of 50. Her life story doesn’t read happily – young marriage and subsequent divorce, attempted suicide, a stroke at the age of 30, remarriage to her first husband who eventually kills himself, breast cancer, and continued poor health. Yet through all this she managed to write more than twenty short stories, six novels and a fair amount of poetry, most of which was published to critical acclaim during her lifetime.
The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter unravels somewhat like a walk through a gallery – the chapters read like somber portraits as the characters live their lonely lives beside one another but without the consolation of true interaction. The novel is set in a small southern town in Depression-era America, and follows five individuals as they search for something to take them above the daily bleakness of their lonesome existence. These five characters share only one thing – a painful appreciation of their own isolation.
Biff Brannon – a man perplexed by what he sees occur around him: his wife’s death, the emotional excesses of his customers and acquaintances, the gentle love he begins to feel for the young girl Mick Kelly. Brannon moves through the novel like a man underwater but he is one of its more reflective elements coming up with thoughts such as: in some men it is in them to give up everything personal at some time, before it ferments and poisons – throw it to some human being or some human idea.
Jake Blount – an intelligent but emotionally unstable man, broken by his understanding of society’s ills. He spends the entire novel fueling his alcoholic rage and ranting to anyone who will listen about the TRUTH he has discovered.
Mick Kelly – ruling her neighborhood kingdom and her younger siblings with a ferocious tenderness. She wants nothing more than to spend her hours understanding the great wave of music that has risen up inside of her. She wants to take music lessons but her family is too poor. Instead she listens to the radio, absorbing the notes, unraveling the puzzle of it. The music was her – the real plain her…Wonderful music like this was the worst hurt there could be. The whole world was this symphony and there was not enough of her to listen.
Dr. Copeland – a black doctor and embittered man whose strictly envisioned hopes for his four children have turned up empty. He is proud and tireless, working long nights despite his advancing tuberculosis to heal and educate his community. To help them rise above their imposed poverty and moral decay.
And finally, John Singer – a deaf-mute whose friend, another deaf-mute and the only person Singer can fully communicate with, gets sent to an asylum by a relative who no longer wishes to care for the increasingly difficult young man. Singer, alone and needing company, accepts the frequent intrusions of the community around him. He functions as the eye of the novel’s hurricane. The other characters rage and storm against their maddening life perceptions, finding comfort in Singer’s one-sided conversations. He listens to them. He offers them refreshment. He looks them in the eye. And slowly, Dr. Copeland, Jake, Mick and Biff, along with many others in the small town, begin to create a mythical being. A man with endless intelligence, infinite understanding, and vast compassion.
The Heart is a Lonely Hunter is about love. About need. About perception. It is also a faithful and painstakingly drawn portrait of America at its loneliest. McCullers’ exquisite prose is the perfect accompaniment to this often overcast landscape, fashioning a certain beauty into the anger and heartbreak of her characters.