A friend and I disagree whether Holly Doering or Shanti Perez should have taken first in the Get Lit! 101-Word Fiction Showdown. He says it should have gone to Doering because, despite the lyricism in her descriptions of eggs, the final line of Perez’s “The Numbers Game” had nothing whatsoever to do with what came before it. My problem with Doering’s “Sharper Than a Serpent’s Tooth” was that it ended in death. Matricide, to be exact. Death is a big deal. It is one of life’s few inevitabilities, and we can hardly begin to understand what lies beyond it. Every time someone writes about it, it puts me on edge. My fear is that these writers use death as a shield. Unsure of their own abilities, they write about something meaningful, rather than trying to write something meaningful, hoping that is somehow brings some gravitas into their work. To even begin to approach it in fewer than one-hundred-and-one words was ridiculous. It just seemed like a cheap way to inject some drama into the story.
Flannery O’Connor writes about death a lot. Of the thirty-one stories in this collection, eleven end with at least one person dying, violently more often than not. But she is no amateur writer searching for some literary heft. She is a master. Though death is always present, always a threat, always a suffocating memory, her stories are not about it, really. They’re about faith.
It’s intimidating, to be honest. If O’Connor ever heard of “Kum Ba Yah,” she must have thought it was the punch line to a not particularly funny joke. Hers is not the gentle ecumenical faith of most American churches today. It’s not the sort of faith that admits the possibility all can or will be saved or that good works alone are enough for everlasting life. Belief in God and redemption are matters more important even than life and death. Far better for her characters to have that moment of recognition, of revelation, moments before a bullet enters their brain than a life lived without belief.
Miracles populate her stories, but these are the sort you wish pass from you. A trio of boys who burn an entire forest. An escaped prisoner who systematically murders every member of your family. A thief who specializes in body prosthetics. These are how the supernatural enter O’Connor’s characters’ lives, not a gentle voice on the radio or small coincidence. God does not merely move in mysterious but cruel and absurd ways.
It’s an intense experience. Mine is an ironic age. Our favorite comedians act purely on the level of irony. The entire hipster sub-culture is one defined by its participation in irony, from dress to drink. There is not a hint of the ironic in O’Connor, however. When she writes that the vandal with a club foot eats the pages from his stolen Bible and calls them “honey,” she is earnest. When the man who rushes to save a child from drowning in the river is described as “some ancient water monster,” she is serious that the boy may have found the better part.
O’Connor’s writings are not experiments or contemplations or riffs. They are statements of belief. She does not ask whether you agree with her. She knows through to the core of her being what she believes. She doesn’t need your approval. To be faced with such certain devotion to something of such importance is an uncomfortable thing. It throws back in our collective faces our lack of conviction in much of anything.
O’Connor does have her weaknesses. Her range, especially in terms of character, is limited. The independent, landed women differ only in name between “A Circle in the Fire,” “The Displaced Person,” “Greenleaf” and “Revelation.” Old men, so certain in their country towns but lost in the city, appear again and again in “The Geranium,” “The Artificial Nigger” and “Judgment Day.” The hateful, useless, college-educated youth is a particular favorite type of O’Connor. They appear in “Good Country People,” “The Enduring Chill” and “The Partridge Festival.”
When she moves outside these limited characters and their similar problems, I find her strongest work. The gentle humor of “A Temple of the Holy Ghost” which draws out to the furthest what it means to be a child of God; the boy who struggles to uphold his obligations in “You Can’t Be Any Poorer Than Dead;” and the exclamation of who one is in “Parker’s Back” are all favorites. I have a particular soft spot for “The Barber,” too, even if O’Connor apparently didn’t think too highly of it. It was only published without her permission after her death.
3 years ago