It is very hard not to have a visceral reaction to Flannery O’Connor’s novel Wise Blood. This is a messy and bizarre book, but also strangely and deeply funny. I read each chapter often appalled and disgusted, a little frightened and uncomfortable but at several points I burst out laughing. O’Connor’s ability to make me laugh at what was otherwise a gravely serious story is what transformed the reading experience for me, because I found it hard to enjoy reading Wise Blood. It just wasn’t that kind of book.
My experience with Flannery O’Connor is limited to a selection of her short stories, ones which most people have read – A Good Man is Hard to Find, Good Country People, Everything That Rises Must Converge. All very typical of her style and good examples of her ability to mingle a cracking wit with what is otherwise a sad or distressing detail. Who can forget the grandmother in A Good Man is Hard to Find, trying frantically to make something beautiful and religious come out of her family drive while her son and his family are picked off by The Misfit and his partners right in front of her. It is nearly impossible to convey the humor in that story by describing what happens…on the surface it is so awful, but lurking behind every line of dialogue and around each of the characters’ actions is this wonderful absurdity.
In any case, Wise Blood is in the same vein. Although there is something about carrying that mood through 150 pages that makes it more intense. And I’d say the dark bits overwhelm the comic bits so the overall effect is a little hard to take. The story is simple: Hazel Motes has just finished his army tour and has left his empty home in a small town to make his way as a preacher in a nearby “big” city. He preaches The Church Without Christ from the hood of his dilapidated car and becomes obsessed with another street preacher Asa Hawkes (who is not blind, but pretends to be after a failed attempt to blind himself) whose daughter Sabbath becomes obsessed with Hazel.
No one in this novel does what one would expect, and mostly people are mean-spirited and cruel to one another. The story involves a considerable amount of street preaching, a stolen mummy, a man in a gorilla suit and one horrible act of vehicular manslaughter. Lots of symbolism and much of it grotesquely done, which is what O’Connor is famous for. Wise Blood is a gruesome carnival. And as such, a perfect setting for an intensely religious/philosophical meditation.
As usual, I’m less interested in the “meaning” of this novel and how it fits into its tradition (although I am fascinated by Southern Gothic literature in general) and more curious to pick apart the details. I really appreciated the understated quality of O’Connor’s writing. Thinking back on the book, my mind is filled with one spectacular image after another, which is, I think, the effect of the novel’s grotesque, but when I go through the text to pull any of this out, the actual descriptions are simple and straightforward. A lot of her power rests in the dialogue and because her characters are so eccentric, they say eccentric things, which sets the novel’s mood without the narrator having to do much work. The narrator does, however, signal the comic elements to the reader, but with a great deal of subtlety.
I suspect I will always prefer her short stories, but I’m very happy to have read Wise Blood and I plan on reading The Violent Bear it Away, her other novel.