"Our pride must be strong, for we know the value of the human mind and soul. We must teach our children. We must sacrifice so that they may earn the dignity of study and wisdom. For the time will come. The time will come when the riches in us will not be held in scorn and contempt. The time will come when we will be allowed to serve. When we will labor and our labor will not be wasted. And our mission is to await this time with strength and faith."
– The Heart is a Lonely Hunter
Finished reading The Heart is a Lonely Hunter a few days ago. Have you read it? What a gut wrencher. It starts out so deceptively simple but as it progresses so does the complexity.
One of the main characters is John Singer, a Christ-like deaf-mute everyone in this small, southern town instinctively trusts, without quite understanding why. They're drawn to him by a force stronger than themselves. Though he can't hear, he can read lips and perhaps that's why they trust their secrets will go no further. It's comparable to praying to an almighty figure, one assumed to be listening with undivided attention, never giving a direct, verbal answer but absolving all. But who is he, save a man willing to sit still as long as they need to vent? And what relieves their minds, aside from expressing their pain?
What the other characters reveal about themselves is their sadness, heartbreak and desperate yearning for the one thing that's their passion. They feel free to express themselves without reservation, pouring out the most intimate of details, all because something in his eyes is almost hypnotizing, how he gazes with absolute compassion. Like gazing into a mirror reflecting another mirror into infinity, his eyes see into their souls.
John Singer lives in a boarding house owned by the family of a young, budding adolescent tom boyish girl named Mick Kelly. Passionately moved by music, Mick hopes to become a famous composer, brushing off the dirt of this small Georgia town, moving away to New York – mecca of opportunity for dreamers. She comes to sit in Mr. Singer's room, perched on a chair next to his radio with her ear to the speaker, absorbing symponies into her soul.
"This was her, Mick Kelly, walking in the daytime and by herself at night. In the hot sun and in the dark with all the plans and feelings. This music was her—the real plain her…This music did not take a long time or a short time. It did not have anything to do with time going by at all. She sat with her arms around her legs, biting her salty knee very hard. The whole world was this symphony, and there was not enough of her to listen… Now that it was over there was only her heart beating like a rabbit and this terrible hurt."
Another character, Biff Brannon, is the proprietor of the New York Café. Brannon is a sort of enigma. Married to a shrew, he's manipulated by her will, considering small things like holding onto 20 years-worth of old papers, documenting the history of this small town, as brave rebellion. Like John Singer he stands back and sees all. Unlike Singer others find him an isolating person.
His feelings about Mick baffle me, though. He treads the line between a possibly carnal lust and the desire to be a fatherly figure to her, his thoughts discomfiting. There's a sense, though, that he legitimately cares for her deeply. Honestly, I can't say what's behind his character. He's complex and I couldn't get to the heart of him.
Then there's Jake Blount, a drunkard who wanders into town one day and just never leaves. Obnoxious and abrasive, at heart he's possessed by politics, or the theory behind politics. In curious opposition to another character, Benedict Mady Copeland – an African American doctor dying of a tuberculosis-like disease – the two approach each other like boxers in the ring, carefully circling. Though some of their beliefs seem compatible, neither can stand the other.
Copeland's dream is to advance the lives of black people, to grab what he thinks rightfully theirs, shaking off oppression. His great sorrow is his children. Named after rebellious figures such as Karl Marx, his intense insistence they take up his cause drives them away. He feels they're failures and they know his disappointment. But no matter how he tries he cannot hold off lecturing whenever he sees them, driving the wedge more and more deeply though his love for them is limitless.
The only character John Singer himself feels deeply about is another deaf-mute, Spiros Antonapoulos, his roommate and closest companion early in the book. The other man loses his sanity, following an unnamed illness, carted off to an asylum by his cousin, where he remains for the rest of the novel.
Why the deep kinship formed between Singer and the less-enamored Antonapoulos puzzles me. The shared disability and life on the outskirts of society could certainly act to pull them together but Antonapoulos is a grasping character, described as obese, oily and smelly. McCullers makes him as unlikeable as possible, yet Singer never loses his deep love for his "friend," even when Antonapoulos's mind slips away, becoming completely self-involved and oblivious to his friend's generosity and the purity of his love. Though John Singer is kind and welcoming to everyone who crosses his threshold, it's as if his life is dependent upon Spiros, the one person who cares least about him. The one person he's unable to save.
As a whole, the book is a treasure, a masterpiece. I could read it over and over and still not unravel all the nuances. What makes it more impressive is this was McCullers's first novel, written at age 23 and now ranked by the Modern Library as one of the Top 100 Books of the 20th Century.
Clearly, the author's own passion was writing her heart out in the short time she had, dying at 50 after a life plagued by illness. And this book, the only of her novels I've yet read, has waltzed itself into one of my favorite books of all time.
For more on the author:
"I live with the people I create and it has always made my essential loneliness less keen."
– Carson McCullers