I don’t write as much about fiction on this blog as I would like, which is my own fault; I built this blog on reviews of outrageously weird and, very often, poorly made movies. But I like good movies too, and good fiction even more. I review Gene Wolfe’s novels in hopes that people will read my gushing praise and want to read them. But I don’t review books by Nabokov (whom I love, inordinately) and other respectable, "mainstream" authors for a number of reasons, one of them being that enough people, many smarter than I, have already written reams on their work to which little can honestly be added.
A few weeks ago, though, an acquaintance began to discuss his reading habits, which he admitted veer mostly towards “trash” (he reads an obscene amount of Robert Jordan and David Eddings, neither of which I would really call “trash”), but he sometimes reads more serious fiction, like, y'know, Fight Club and Choke. When discussing Flannery O’Connor, he admitted that he found her too depressing to read for pleasure. I asked how then he could read so much Chuck Palahniuk, and his response was along the lines of “because I never get the impression that he really means it.” I resisted the urge to tell him that that was what made Palahniuk trash in comparison to the earnest and unpretentious, if generic fantasists that he enjoys.
Wise Blood was O’Connor’s first novel, obsequiously categorized as “Southern Gothic,” as though the term ever meant anything. Hazel Motes, a recently discharged soldier and the last of a family of preachers boards a train to Taulkinham, where, inspired by blind preacher Asa Hawkes, he preaches the Church without Christ from the hood of a broken down car that seems to continue running on little more than faith. Hazel Motes wants to rid himself of Christ, who haunts him “from tree to tree in the back of his mind, a wild ragged figure motioning him to turn around and come off into the dark." He meets an assortment of those characters that only O’Connor could get away with imagining -- the simple but nasty Enoch Emery, whose “wise blood” acts as a sort of warped prophetic (not the Miss Cleo sort of prophetic) mystical impulse, and failed blind street preacher/conman Asa Hawkes and his debauched daughter.
What my friend didn’t grasp, and what I think many no longer have the tools to understand, is how hysterically funny all of the nastiness -- and believe me, O'Connor pulls few punches when describing vile and bizarre behavior -- in Wise Blood really is and was intended to be. O’Connor flexes her satirical wit throughout the novel, though never so thoroughly as when Hawkes’s daughter, Sabbath, writes to an advice columnist: “Dear Mary, I am a bastard and a bastard shall not enter the kingdom of heaven as we all know, but I have this personality that makes boys follow me. Do you think I should neck or not?" The response: "Light necking is acceptable, but I think your real problem is one of adjustment to the modern world. Perhaps you ought to re-examine your religious values to see if they meet your needs in Life."
As one might guess from that exchange, there is an uneasy marriage of theological concern with humor, and O’Connor never relegates religion to subtext. The theme of the novel is intentionally perplexing, and the humor is a major reason why. Motes is a preacher and cannot escape that. When he visits a prostitute who mistakes him for a preacher, he insists that he is not. She responds with “That’s okay. Mama don’t mind if you ain’t no preacher.” Hilarious, yes, but the statement also sets up the horrific battle between Motes’ will and the pervasive notion of predestination that continues to burden Christianity in America.
I find it difficult to picture a Catholic like O’Connor agreeing with John Calvin, and she doesn’t, really. One of the worst misreadings of Wise Blood holds that Motes’ seeks penance out of grace; in reality, Motes resists grace by trying to atone for his sins. Even in his penance, he seeks to escape from the blood of Christ. But there is another thread at the end of the novel, a flickering light of hope from behind his dark eyes, which suggests that grace works through Hazel Motes even if he flees from the invitation it presents him.
It’s a testament to O’Connor’s skill that Wise Blood is rather easy reading, filled with paradox and mystery and bizarre characterization. The grotesque is unpleasantly real, and unlike the fabricated weirdness of many contemporary writers. I'm pretty sure I've been to Taulkinham; in fact, I'm pretty sure I live there. It’s probably the most brutal fable ever told, part of trend in literature that has fallen almost entirely out of practice but for the likes of McCarthy and Wolfe.