Post Road Magazine #13

A Good Man is Hard to Find by Flannery O’Connor

Alyson Hagy

Flannery O’Connor creeps me out. Those malign and watchful children. Those smooth-talking itinerants bent on revenge. Those skittering peafowl. Those claustrophobic and sullen skies. I grew up in the South, but we didn’t read Flannery O’Connor in school down there. Oh, no. Hell, no. She was much too impolitic and impolite. I didn’t come across America’s relentless mistress of the short story until I attended college in Yankeeland. Discovering the furies of AGood Man is Hard to Find during aNew England winter was akin to tumbling into the dark, slick entrance of a Virginia limestone cave. Disorienting. Dizzying. We don’t talk like that,I told myself. (Yes, we do.) We don’t act like that.(Yes, we do.) Reading O’Connor’s first book twenty-five years after its publication set off a riot of character creation and recrimination in my head. Re-reading AGood Man is Hard to Find another twenty-five years later has spooked me again.

Those of us who are lucky enough to roam a classroom probably have regular contact with the title story, that brittle classic that features the traveling grandmother in her organdy collar and cuffs and her “scholarly” murderer, The Misfit. And we can usually generate a tittering classroom discussion on the topic of one-legged Joy/Hulga and her seducer, Manly Pointer, of “Good Country People.” Young readers and writers are fascinated by O’Connor’s blunt humor, unchecked irony, and savage treatment of hypocrisy. They also believe—at first blush—that O’Connor’s views of race and religion in the South are safely anchored in the harbor of their own preconceptions. They are wrong. Flannery O’Connor never lets her characters off the hook. Her protagonists writhe in humiliation. They suffer strokes that kill or silence them. Their pride becomes a crushing yoke of indignity. And O’Connor’s readers dangle right alongside her wriggling characters. “I like this story,” one writing student recently told me after she forged through “The Artificial Nigger.” “I like it,” she continued, “but I don’t really like it, if you know what I mean.”

I know exactly what she means.

Reading O’Connor’s best work is like chewing on a meaty bone in the center of a deserted barn yard. You get what you came for—vivid characterizations, the hurtling pleasures of plot, a chance to gnaw on meaning (if that is your sort of marrow). But reading O’Connor also involves being read. Looked at. Spied upon. Her fiction is a proving ground of scrutiny. Flannery O’Connor’s stories watch us even as her characters watch one another. Think of the vainglorious Mr. Head in “The Artificial Nigger” and how he wilts beneath the penetrating observations of black residents in their urban neighborhood. Think of Mr. Guizac’s death in “The Displaced Person” and how Mrs. McIntyre and Mr. Shortley silently witness the forward roll of the tractor while the Negro farmhand witnesses their complicit failure to warn Guizac of danger. O’Connor’s folk sit on their porches and watch the world come for them. Yet her gaze, unlike theirs, is unblinking.

Few writers get under my skin like Flannery O’Connor. I love Munro and Trevor and Baxter, and I feel as though I have learned something deep and humane from each of them. Yet O’Connor is my lash. Like Annie Proulx, she does not foster a generous view of humanity or its landscapes. Like Mary Gaitskill, her tales can be cruelly distant and cool. But her sentences are so insistent, her conclusions so stubborn and unfashionable, that I cannot look away. Scrutiny, I think, is the spear point of this art. It is why O’Connor is still so infuriatingly original, still impos- sible to imitate. And scrutiny—the searing eye of the storyteller—seems, during these American days, all too dispensable and rare. •

Alyson Hagy is the author of four works of fiction. Her latest novel is Snow, Ashes. She lives and writes in Laramie, Wyoming.

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