I have been working on Flannery O’Connor: The Complete Stories for several months now (maybe even for a whole year). I finished them this week, and I am blown away. Did Flannery O’Connor define the Southern Gothic genre? Was she the first? Because she is a master.
‘She would of been a good woman,’ The Misfit said, ‘if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life.’
O’Connor was born in my home state of Georgia, and I have savored her short stories these past months, consuming them in small doses for a couple of reasons:
1) The stories are — heavy is not the right word. Potent is a better description. They take chewing, swallowing, and digesting. And then palate cleansers in between.
2) I’m not the type to be able to read a 500 page book of short stories cover to cover. I can read a novel that way, but not short stories. I like them independent of each other.
I often struggle when a book takes me this long to read: if I loved it, I feel I should have devoured it. But this book of short stories made me feel differently about that. Flannery O’Connor’s writing is a marvel. Every element of her stories contributes to the overall feel of them – the titles, the dialogue, the pacing, the metaphors – and I am thrilled to just read the titles of the stories, much less the stories themselves:
“Everything That Rises Must Converge”
“The Lame Shall Enter First”
“Why Do the Heathen Rage?”
“You Can’t Be Any Poorer Than Dead”
As those titles suggest, the moods are dark, hence the Southern Gothic descriptor of Flannery O’Connor’s work. Her characters are odd and creepy, “possessed” by Satan, the Holy Spirit, or atheism.
She could never be a saint, but she thought she could be a martyr if they killed her quick.
The people who populate her stories are sometimes intelligent, sometimes ignorant, almost always self-righteous and backwards, and they are utterly believable to me as a person who grew up in the state of Georgia.
The sense of place that O’Connor invokes, through her characters, mastery of Southern dialects, and black humor, has lit a fire under me to finish reading Georgia — and come back to my Andrea Reads America reading project — after a long hiatus.
He had worked on the box a long time, and when he finished it he had scratched on the top, MASON TARWATER, WITH GOD, and had climbed into it where it stood on the back porch and had lain there for some time, nothing showing but his stomach which rose over the top like overleavened bread.
– “You Can’t Be Any Poorer Than Dead,” The Complete Stories, by Flannery O’Connor
Arkansas was kicking my butt, y’all. It began well, with me devouring Charles Portis’s True Grit* in two days, but when I finished the book, I realized a good half of it took place in the Oklahoma territory. Should I count it for Arkansas on my Andrea Reads America tour? (Andrea Reads America = three books set in each state, with works by men, women, and authors of color)
On top of the True Grit dilemma, Arkansas was the state that spawned my Where are the ethnic authors? post. After reaching out to faculty in the University of Arkansas English department, I still didn’t have any works of fiction set in the state of Arkansas and written by Arkansas authors of color. I considered relaxing my fiction rule to read the professor-recommended nonfiction titles; I considered reading an Arkansas-set novel written by a novelist who has lived her whole life in New York. I took a break from Andrea Reads America to read The Goldfinch while I ruminated on what to do about the Arkansas dilemma(s).
When I finished The Goldfinch, I was doped on excellence. I drifted through life in that post-amazing-novel daze where you haven’t yet blinked back into reality; I knew whatever book followed was going to suffer, like those poor ice skaters who crash when they follow a gold-medal performance.
And what followed was Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. I’ve read the book before, and I know it is good, but it did not satisfy me this time. I wanted fiction. I wanted landscape. Caged Bird is nonfiction; it is soulscape. I thought, well, maybe I need something funny, something totally different from the literariness of The Goldfinch; maybe I need something light, something totally different from the seriousness of I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.
I found a murder mystery series set in Arkansas and written by Arkansas author Joan Hess (she satisfies my woman author criterion!), and I drove to our library to pick up one of the titles in the series, Misery Loves Maggody. I tried to like it, I really did. But the characters were caricatures – exaggerated and expected – and the settings, dialogue, and scenes were cliché after cliché after cliché. The murder didn’t even happen until more than 100 pages in. But more disappointing than any of that was that since I did not detect authenticity in the characters, I did not trust the setting either; the setting could have been a silly spoof of any Southern town – I didn’t get a feel for Arkansas from it.
In other words, Misery Loves Maggody didn’t work for me either.
I was a teensy bit frustrated at this point. Just a tinch. I still needed a non-Caucasian author, and I still needed a woman. One of the Arkansas professors suggested Janis Kearney, the Presidential Diarist for Bill Clinton. She is an African-American writer from Arkansas who wrote a biography of Daisy Bates, an Arkansas civil rights activist. She also wrote a memoir, Cotton Field of Dreams. Awesome, right? Woman and not white. Works set in Arkansas. Problems solved, right?
Neither were available at our county or University libraries. And as I’ve mentioned before, despite being an avid reader, I rarely buy books.
On the drive home after yet another trip to our county library, where I discussed the option of an interlibrary loan of Cotton Field of Dreams with the librarian ($3 fee, could be a few weeks before it shows up, maybe I should just order it), it occurred to me: why don’t I run a search for short stories? Surely there’s at least ONE short story out there by an ethnic author. That’s all I need. Just one.
So I searched.
I searched, and I found.
Henry Dumas. Born 1934 in Sweet Home, Arkansas. Called “an absolute genius” by Toni Morrison. Wrote poetry and – get this – short stories. Fiction! And? And! When I searched the University catalogue, his short story collection, Ark of Bones, with – praise the Lord – stories set in Arkansas, pinged “Available, 3rd Floor, Newman Library.”
The next day, after a trip to the 3rd Floor, Newman Library, I plopped down on our couch with Ark of Bones, and I nearly cried for joy. The stories are alive, and they are different from anything I’ve read in a very, very long time. If ever. They are dark and smoky, masculine and earthy, filled with mojo and magic; they read as if they come from a long line of souls buried deep in the earth. I imagine Henry Dumas was an intense man; he certainly had reverence for the dignity of his race.
Most importantly, in what is surely the crowning accomplishment in his writing career, he rescued me from a post-Goldfinch spiral and an anti-Arkansas frustration. I am grateful to him for that. And I am grateful to the works that didn’t work: I would not have found Henry Dumas without them.
*I decided to keep True Grit for Arkansas. It’s too great a book to leave out.