Thursday, September 21, 2017

"A Good Man Is Hard to Find" (1953)

Read story by Flannery O'Connor online.

Flannery O'Connor's story is a hard gut punch, certainly the first time. After that you go back to dissect and figure out how it was done. The central problem and conflict are right there in the first paragraph, a fact perhaps as improbable as it is amazing. Even more amazing is the smooth way O'Connor pulls it off. A family's grandmother is an out-of-touch barnacle on the hull. Their ship is sinking, though we don't know why. We only know the mother and father are in a big hurry to travel from Georgia to Florida, although they are pretending it's a family vacation. There are two kids and an infant, the stressed-out parents, and the grandmother, who all things considered would rather be traveling to East Tennessee. She is an exasperating character, a kind of Lucille Ball figure oblivious to the worries of others or the reality around her, and attempting to manipulate all things her way. At the same time she's not wholly an unsympathetic person. If I were in her position I'd want to know more about why they're doing the things they're doing too. She doesn't deserve the fate she inadvertently forces—though even in the worst moments of their ultimate predicament she still doesn't seem to grasp the gravity of the situation, which leaves one less sympathetic. As big-time bad guys go, "The Misfit" is a lulu, starting with the moniker (no relation to the Arthur Miller story, which came later). Once he's squatting down in front of the family holding court, it's his show in every way, and all you want to do is quote him: "I found out the crime don't matter," he says. "You can do one thing or you can do another, kill a man or take a tire off his car, because sooner or later you're going to forget what it was you done and just be punished for it." Or: "I call myself the Misfit because I can't make what all I done wrong fit what all I gone through in punishment." Or (my favorite): "Lady, there never was a body that give the undertaker a tip." He's the kind of character people make whole books about, when O'Connor is probably the one who has it right: stick him in a short story and overflow it with bitter bilge until it leaves a taste in the mouth. Among other things, a scene of a man putting on a shirt could well be one of the saddest, most pitiful, and horrifying things you have ever seen.

American Short Story Masterpieces, ed. Raymond Carver and Tom Jenks

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for adding Flannery O'Connor to the Can't Explain canon. When I began Wilmington College in September 1964, my Freshman English course used two anthologies, one of which included "A Good Man Is Hard to Find", the other "A Late Encounter with the Enemy", and I was immediately smitten by Flannery O'Connor's writing, a passion that's never left me. Later, I found the irony that O'Connor had died of lupus at age 39, just over a month before I discovered her. A short life, but one that created so much precise prose, with every word the perfect one, and never too many or too few. Check out her story "Revelation", one of my favorites, thanks to me having grown up around several Mrs. Turpins in rural Ohio. As for the pithy quotes from The Misfit, I've always been struck by his summation of his violence against the hapless family, "She would of been a good woman if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life." Not an action I'd endorse, of course, but quite a trenchant concept just the same. -- Richard Riegel