Friday, March 9, 2012

Oh Flannery, You Charmer You...

When, in 2009, Flannery O'Connor's collection of stories (A Good Man is Hard to Find) became our next book club selection, I decided to attempt super-reader-status and read the complete, entire, whole she-bang instead. It took me 2 1/2 years to finish.  Not so super-reader-ish after all.

From that, you may think that these stories aren't any good, but you'd be [mostly] wrong.  Admittedly, there are a few that had me thinking that one of us (either Flannery or I) was off her rocker, but for the most part these stories are all very entertaining.  The problem is, they are rather dark and a bit heavy.  Even the humor is dark.  Reading very many stories in a row is like being smacked up-side the head with a heavy dose of hopelessness.  Still, there are many more gems than duds, proving O'Connor a true champion of short stories.

Most of her characters have major issues regarding prejudice, religion, and pride.  It would take some serious work to catalog the number of slack-jawed, dull-eyed folk between these covers.  If you're looking for something pure, pretty, and politically correct, these stories won't suit.  If you're looking for a sharp eye and witty cynicism, however, look no further.

So.  Maybe I don't recommend reading straight through this collection.  But I do recommend experiencing some of her writing, and there are some fabulous options here.  Generally speaking, I enjoyed the stories from A Good Man is Hard to Find more than the others, but there is much to enjoy throughout.  Here are some stories that were highlights for me:

A Stroke of Good Fortune
"Standing up straight, she was a short woman, shaped nearly like a funeral urn."

Instead of pitting two people against each other to illuminate their faults, this story allows the main character Ruby Hill to do it all herself in the span of time it takes her to walk up the stairs to her apartment.  Ruby's particular plight is unique in that she mixes pride with a dose of hypochondria.  (I've just discovered that this story later grew into her first novel, Wise Blood, so I've got more Flannery on my list.) The reader quickly ascertains Ruby's true condition, making all of her thoughts and complaints all the more entertaining.  At a mere 13 pages, this story is well worth the ride.

A Good Man is Hard to Find
"The grandmother was curled up under the dashboard, hoping she was injured so that Bailey's wrath would not come down on her all at once."

I love this story.  Even though the ending is absolutely horrid, it is a delight to read.  The characters are so vivid (but then, that is to be expected with Flannery) and the dialogue lively.  Have you ever taken a road trip with a grandmother and a cat in the vehicle?  Not the most peaceful of moments.  Even if you've wisely avoided such a catastrophe (terrible pun, my apologies) there's something enjoyable about seeing someone else experience it.  If you want to experience a gritty story with distinct Southern character, this story is a standout.

The Lame Shall Enter First
"Grudgingly, Sheppard felt a slight return of sympathy for the boy."

What is good? What is bad?  How well do you understand the motivations and thoughts of those around you?  How well do you understand your own motivations?  This story does more than illuminate the faults and prejudices of its characters and show the difference between people in different walks of life.  It goes a little deeper--into those times when we deceive ourselves, convinced we are operating for the greater good and doing more harm in the process.  Some interesting thoughts to consider.

Good Country People
"The reason for her keeping them so long was that they were not trash.  They were good country people."

Like in many of her stories, this one contrasts two kinds of people, and the one that is supposed to be "better" ends up looking rather foolish.  Of course, there are no "good" characters and "bad" characters, there are only human beings that have faults, whether they believe it or not.  This story was a nice change of pace from some of the others because the ending wasn't as quick and drastic.  If you're feeling timid about diving into Flannery O'Connor's stories and are looking for something a little more mild, this is your story.


  1. How many stories are in the collection? She was quite prolific wasn't she? Kudos to you for reading them all!

    From the look of the stories you posted about, I don't think Flannery is for me.

  2. There are 31 stories, but it felt like so many more! Probably because the topics aren't really my thing. I like serious stuff as well as scathing wit, but there has to be some redeeming factor, and often with Flannery there isn't. She likes to expose people's faults and then kill them off. Her writing, however, is a lot of fun.

  3. I've got his collection on my nightstand and enjoy dipping in every now and them. The stories are very good, but it's probably not a collection I could sit and read straight through either.

  4. Six degrees of separation here. Flannery O'Connor spent the night in old Whitby Hall at St. Catherine's University where I spend most of my spare time studying literature. I just thought you would want to know. ;-0

  5. I've not been bitten by the F O'C bug, but she's my husband's favorite writer. I somehow always like her stories better when he's reading them aloud to me. Congrats on getting through the entire collection--it would have taken me that long, too!

  6. JoAnn, her writing is good, and the stories are entertaining, but they do lose some of their magic when read all together.

    Belle, I did want to know! I wish I had cool stories like that. :)

    As the Crowe, hearing Flannery read aloud sounds marvelous, I think I'd like them better that way too!

  7. Melody, I have two copies of this exact book on my shelves. You'd think I'd pick it up and read one or two of the stories!

    Belle, That's way cool.

  8. Wow, I love Flannery O'Connor, but can't say I've waded through all her stories. I find them very, very dark. My husbands finds them dark, but quite humorous. I think she really presages the Soprano's phenomenon. The Soprano's was the first show in which the characters were really kind of all around icky, but still compelling. Then you got a whole series of television shows, mostly on cable, with characters who were clearly neither good nor bad, but leaning more heavily on the bad side. And yet you still felt compelled to watch them. That's how I feel about Flannery O'Connor. You don't really like any of her characters, but you still read about them.


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