****Wise Blood

Brad Dourif, Wise Blood, Preacher

Brad Dourif in John Huston’s Wise Blood

By Flannery O’Connor – It’s daunting to try to add something substantive to the voluminous commentary written and discussed about this first entry in Flannery O’Connor’s remarkable canon. But yet, every good book demands careful attention of its readers. And every reading is the chance to make new discoveries and find new insights, at least for oneself.

My reading group tackled this one yesterday. While the novel didn’t have any characters with whom we could identify (or maybe even much like), the fact that it stimulated a lively hour-and-a-half discussion was strong testimony as to its depth. Almost every member of the group sought out additional resources, online lectures, background on O’Connor, critical appraisals, and the like. One of our group watched the well-regarded John Huston movie version and said it helped her understanding a lot and makes the humor clear (nice review of it here)!(trailer)

O’Connor wrote the book over a five-year period ending in the early 1950’s, and we speculated how it would have been perceived in that era, given that it is still fairly opaque today, when experimental and unconventional fiction and characters are much more common. The characters in this book are like trains on a confusion of separate tracks, occasionally crossing, but fundamentally heading to their own destination, pursuing their own ends.

My reading group is a mix. Some have lived in the South, some grew up or have lived in other countries, and they had varying exposures to religiosity, though the religious leanings of the principal character, Hazel Motes, are unique to him. He’s a self-styled preacher for the Church Without Christ (of which he was the originator and sole member). The notions of penance and redemption are fundamental to the story, even if Motes pursues them in a herky-jerky, self-destructive fashion.

I went back to Sally Fitzgerald’s collection of O’Connor’s letters to find what the author herself said about what she intended with this book. Writing about a rather confusing review, “the last part [of which was] about the impiety & lack of love in the book & all that,” she wrote, “It seems to me the form of love in it is penance, as good a form as any other under Mr. Motes circumstances.”

This book is a classic of Southern Gothic writing, and I especially appreciate how she dealt with the question of the book’s “sources.” She wrote, “I have one of those food-chopper brains that nothing comes out the way it went in.” Which is why, sixty years later, it can be still be pulled apart, discussed, and new insights discovered.