I’ve sorely neglected short stories in my reading. I tend to prefer novels and works of nonfiction, reason being short stories end before I have a chance to get into them. Or, worse, they end after I’m fully invested, then I feel let down the tale didn’t last longer. I prefer the luxury of characters revealed more slowly. That’s pretty much the same thing I hear from others who aren’t fond of the genre, who rate it low on their reading scale. Still, that’s no excuse. I should have better knowledge about the best of the classic short stories.
I’m beginning my midlife classic story study with a story I’ve somehow managed to miss: Flannery O’Connor’s “A Good Man is Hard to Find.” I’ve read her Wise Blood, and recall it being masterful, though I admit I don’t remember too much about it (a factor of age, not a statement as to her skill). Another point in her favor, she’s a southern writer. Being both native southern and a lover of the literature of that region, this works out quite well.
[Material below contains some spoilers.]
I’ve read the story – two days ago – and haven’t stopped thinking about it since, mulling over what exactly makes it so grotesque. That’s how powerfully disturbing it is, how chilling. I’m still coming to terms with the idea a woman with such a sweet face and unassuming nature could have come up with an unflinchingly brutal piece of writing, how she took a humorous slice of family life story and turned it around into one of the most violent short pieces I’ve read.
Above is an audio file of the author herself reading the story, and the etext is here, so you can follow along as she reads. Listening to the sweet, cultured voice of Flannery O’Connor adds much character to the experience; I’m glad I stumbled onto the recording. Getting her intonation, the comic as well as the tragic, opened up worlds of meaning I may not have picked up myself. She sounds like one of my aunts – Mississippi born and raised on the more cultured maternal side of my family – so much it’s a bit unnerving. I recall glasses of homemade sweet tea (it has to be brewed, friends, not instant), my legs in shorts sticking to the vinyl chairs around the vintage 1950s era chrome wrapped blue speckled kitchen table while my aunts cooked, listening to them talk and laugh like young girls. Window unit air conditioners blasted, freezing the humid air nearly to ice, a moment of luxurious refreshment before I’d be sent back outside to play with cousins who never quite accepted me as their northern-raised, faux-southern relative. Outside was oppressive humidity, red and dusty earth, feathery mimosa trees wiggling their fingers. If they – the boys, more so – were lucky, a water moccasin snake to kill and watch in wonder as it continued to wriggle long after its head had been separated from its body – a not uncommon enough experience for my comfort.
Flannery O’Connors voice transports me places long past.
The fact it’s read before a live audience is revealing in its own way. What begins as natural laughter at O’Connor’s easy, funny style turns nervous and uncomfortable as they come to terms with the complete shift in mood, tone unchanged. Oddly, interspersed laughter continues, even once the story abruptly turns brutal. Why is that? Some couldn’t quite make the transition, couldn’t emotionally handle the unexpected twist. They didn’t know what to make of it, attempting to cover their discomfiture via ingrained but inappropriate response. Their behavior was nervous.
In the story, a family is heading out on a Florida vacation: a mother and father, their baby, two older children and their grandmother. The children fight and speak disrespectfully to their grandmother, setting up slapstick humor as the two hit at each other over her head. The elderly woman, their father’s mother, lectures them on behavior, how in her day children were respectful. Of course, they couldn’t care less. The car trip continues, until their grandmother begins telling a story, in hopes her grandchildren will calm down and shut up.
Earlier, at breakfast, the grandmother voices her disapproval the trip will even be undertaken, having heard the story a convict called “The Misfit” has escaped from a local penitentiary. He’s also headed to Florida, but what are the odds a violent criminal would cross the path of an all-American family on an innocent, short vacation? The older woman is dismissed, paid no attention.
The title of the story comes from a later scene, when they stop for dinner at a barbecue restaurant. Owner Red Sam takes a break from working on his car, sitting by them as they wait for their food:
You can’t win,” and he wiped is sweating red face off with a gray handkerchief. “These days you don’t know who to trust,” he said. “Ain’t that the truth?”
“People are certainly not nice like they used to be,” said the grandmother.
“A good man is hard to find,” Red Sammy said. “Everything is getting terrible…”
It’s difficult telling more without risk of spoiling. At approximately 12 pages, there isn’t much room to work with, not much leeway for talking about what comes after. You’ll already have guessed something terrible befalls the family, but how and why will come as an utter shock, it’s so strange. It revolves around the grandmother, when she makes a silly, ultimately fatal mistake. She inadvertently brings about their doom.
So, what is it that makes “A Good Man is Hard to Find” so lauded? The story of a family meeting a grim fate on a short and innocent vacation doesn’t sound as if it would necessarily become an enduring, often-taught piece of literature. It’s not so funny it’s side-splitting, like Twain, and the horror happens mostly off-stage. What’s its merit? It’s an ironic piece in that the character most insistent modern times are horrible, yet still wanting to find the potential good in people, is the very person who causes the horror to unfold. If the grandmother had stayed behind, as she’d originally wanted to do, the trip would likely have been unremarkable. The young family would have returned on Sunday, all right with the world.
It goes further than that, though. Ultimately, her worst fears are realized. The innate evil in man causes her to lose everything, despite her desperate but impotent desire to make up for what she’d done, going so far as to react as inappropriately as Flannery O’Connor’s nervous audience. Even that would earn what my former Engish professor Sister Mary Ely’s comment “So what?”
So a lot, later in the story:
Look here now,” Bailey began suddenly. “we’re in a predicament! We’re in …”
The grandmother shrieked. She scrambled to her feet and stood staring. “You’re The Misfit!” she said. “I recognized you at once!”
“Yes’m,” the man said, smiling slightly as if he were pleased in spite of himself to be known, “but it would have been better for all of you, lady, if you hadn’t of reckernized me.”
Bailey turned his head sharply and said something to his mother that shocked even the children. The old lady began to cry and The Misfit reddened.
“Lady,” he said, “don’t you get upset. Sometimes a man says things he don’t mean. I don’t reckon he meant to talk to you thataway.”
“You wouldn’t shoot a lady, would you?” the grandmother said and removed a clean handkerchief from her cuff and began to slap at her eyes with it.
The Misfit pointed the toe of his shoe into the ground and made a little hole and then covered it up again. “I would hate to have to,” he said.
A man gone so far anti-social to have murdered, southern niceties ingrained in him so deeply he finds using profanity in front of a woman more objectionable than pointing a gun at her. And the grandmother, responsible for all the awfulness, realizing with a jolt exactly what her misstep will bring about.
The story stands up to much more analysis; I’m just not inclined to go too much further into it. It is filled with ambiguities, with social norms turned grotesque. It opens the fakery, the false front most of us put up, illustrating how ridiculous we ultimately are. It does so painfully, using a common image turned terrifying, to jerk us out of lulling complacency. Flannery O’Connor’s realistic style comes too close to plausibility for our comfort, poking sensitivities with a white-hot knife.
That’s why it’s great, Sister Mary Ely. I’ll take that A now.