Flannery O’Connor is one of those writers that writers love. Maybe it’s because we all wish we had her verve, her uncompromising portrayals of the ugly, the violent, the brutal, the religious, and the grotesque. Her short stories, such as the gripping “A Good Man is Hard to Find”, show us how suspense, brutality, and surprising religiosity can come crashing together in a story and leave us breathless. So I’m glad that this week I finally got around to reading her lesser-known novel, Wise Blood. It’s a labrynthine read even though it is simple and direct; it is a horrifying read even though it doesn’t show an excess of violence; it is utterly strange, and very O’Connor. The title alone captures the strangeness and physicality of this book.
It’s impossible to understand O’Connor’s work without understanding her deeply-held religious beliefs. She was a devout Catholic, but often found herself in the position of an outsider, writing about Southern Protestants. Yet she manages to infuse Wise Blood and her other stories with the body and blood of Catholic beliefs. In this novel, a man named Hazel Motes arrives in a dead-end Southern town, apparently at loose ends. He is a former preacher but seems to have lost his faith — or he has experienced something of a religious awakening that throws him in conflict with the other street preachers that fill this oddly mystical town.
Throughout the story, I kept trying to figure out the allegory behind the story, but it was elusive. Motes encounters a series of bizarre, even depraved characters, such as Enoch, who seems convinced that he is destined to do something important, but whose behavior seems increasingly strange. He is obsessed, for example, with a museum relic of a shriveled pre-historic man, as well as with a carnival sideshow act of a gorilla who shakes hands. What do these strange human-like creatures mean? Is Enoch crazy or genuinely religious? Is Hazel Motes, who begins to preach that the only truth is that Jesus is a liar, a true prophet, or a false one? Everything in the story feels charged with significance and interest, yet I wasn’t fully able to tease meaning out of it. It’s a testament to O’Connor’s ability to create scenes and to conjure up powerful, disturbing images. And perhaps the book is more successful because a clear, dull, Christian allegory can’t be easily extracted from it.
Either way, I read with fascination — and felt tempted to incorporate a little more of the strange, fleshy, or depraved in my own writing.