Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Alone with The Misfit

I've written before about my belated appreciation of Flannery O'Connor. Recently I've been reading my way through this handsome collection of all her short stories. I appreciate the fact that they're arranged in chronological order which allows the reader to experience the development of O'Connor as a writer. In a nice bit of symmetry the last story "Judgment Day", which was part of a collection published after her death at age 39,  is a reworking of the first "The Geranium". The fact that these sometimes violent and surreal tales emerged from the imagination of this rather odd and unassuming young Southern woman makes them all the more fascinating. Does Flannery O'Connor deserve to be mentioned in the same breath with literary giants like Faulkner, Hemingway and Fitzgerald? It's arguable, but I think she does.

The eleventh story in the collection is "A Good Man is Hard to Find". O'Connor had hit her stride by the time this was published. The story begins as a bickering family sets out on a road trip to Florida and ends with them shot execution style by a trio of escaped convicts. What comes between is as random and shocking as it sounds. "A Good Man is Hard to Find" features two typical contrasting O'Connor characters: a smug cantankerous grandmother and a psychopathic criminal dubbed "The Misfit". Their confrontation is the centerpiece of the story's final act, and each provokes a moment of crisis in the other.

Alone with The Misfit, the grandmother found that she had lost her voice. There was not a cloud in the sky nor any sun. There was nothing around her but woods. She wanted to tell him that he must pray. She opened and closed her mouth several times before anything came out. Finally she found herself saying, "Jesus. Jesus," meaning, Jesus will help you, but the way she was saying it, it sounded as if she might be cursing.
 "Yes'm," The Misfit said as if he agreed. "Jesus thown everything off balance. It was the same case with Him as with me except He hadn't committed any crime and they could prove I had committed one because they had the papers on me. Of course," he said, "they never shown me my papers. That's why I sign myself now. I said long ago, you get you a signature and sign everything you do and keep a copy of it. Then you'll know what you done and you can hold up the crime to the punishment and see do they match and in the end you'll have something to prove you ain't been treated right. I call myself The Misfit," he said, "because I can't make what all I done wrong fit what all I gone through in punishment." 
There was a piercing scream from the woods, followed closely by a pistol report. "Does it seem right to you, lady, that one is punished a heap and another ain't punished at all?" 
"Jesus!" the old lady cried. "You've got good blood! I know you wouldn't shoot a lady! I know you come from nice people! Pray! Jesus, you ought not to shoot a lady. I'll give you all the money I've got!" 
"Lady," The Misfit said, looking beyond her far into the woods, "there never was a body that give the undertaker a tip."*

I'm probably not giving too much away by telling you this scene ends badly for the grandmother. And in the end The Misfit has one of the all time best punchlines -- a line both mordantly funny and profound.

"She was a talker, wasn't she?" Bobby Lee said, sliding down the ditch with a yodel.
"She would of been a good woman," The Misfit said, "if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life."*

Critics more astute than me have tried to explain the meaning of O'Connor's fiction. I think it's pretty clear she meant to pierce through the complacency that keeps us from recognizing our need for divine grace -- the kind that's "thown everything off balance." Her stories are parables aimed at those who trust in themselves that they are righteous, and treat others with contempt. Or, I don't know, maybe they're just massively entertaining, brilliant and funny. Whatever the case I'm always eager to step into Flannery O'Connor's world.

*Excerpts from "A Good Man is Hard to Find" (1953)

No comments: