My rating: 4 of 5 stars
It’s considered an absolute necessity these days for writers to have compassion. Compassion is a word that sounds good in anybody’s mouth and which no book jacket can do without. It is a quality which no one can put his finger on in any exact critical sense, so it is always safe for anyone to use. Usually I think what is meant by it is that the writer excuses all human weakness because human weakness is human. The kind of hazy compassion demanded of the writer now makes it difficult for him to be anti-anything. Certainly when the grotesque is used in a legitimate way, the intellectual and moral judgements implicit in it will have the ascendancy over feeling.
—Flannery O’Connor, “Some Aspects of the Grotesque in Southern Fiction”
Wise Blood, published in 1952, is Flannery O’Connor’s first novel. As such, it is remarkably accomplished and disciplined: its narrative is concise, its prose is restrained but metaphorical, and it lacks any sense of half-digested experience or lingering adolescent sentimentality.
The novel tells two parallel stories. In the first, Hazel Motes, a circuit-preacher’s grandson, returns to the South from the army, trying to evade Christ, who
move[s] from tree to tree in the back of his mind, a wild ragged figure motioning him to turn around and come off into the dark where he was not sure of his footing, where he might be walking on the water and not know it and then suddenly know it and drown.
To escape this bloodline destiny of losing himself in the waters of ecstatic faith, Motes buys a “high rat-colored car” and sets himself up as an itinerant urban preacher of the “Church of Christ Without Christ,” a kind of blasphemous anti-congregation. O’Connor, who defended the allegorical impulse in realistic fiction, creates in Motes an exemplary modern figure: a man whose impulse toward the divine and transcendent is fierce, but who refuses faith in those ultimate objects of longing.
In the novel’s second story, we meet Enoch Emery, a young man who feels that his mysterious destiny is somehow entwined with that of Motes. Emery, who works in a zoo and leers at women in his off hours in the park adjacent to the zoo, is obsessed with a mummified shrunken human that he sees in a natural history museum; he eventually decides that this figure will become the “new jesus”—the lack of a capital “J” is O’Connor’s work—before donning an ape suit and taking to the woods outside the city. Emery, in other words, represents a figure even lower than Motes’s wicked modern rebel: he is man as animal, a regressive beast without an inkling that there is any such thing as the divine and transcendent.
Wise Blood presents three more major characters: Asa Hawks and his teenaged daughter Lily Sabbath act as foils for Motes. Asa passes himself off as a self-blinded preacher, but he is in fact a fraud who only pretended to blind himself in his religious ecstasies. This contrasts with Hazel Motes’s own eventual self-blinding, his attempt both to atone for his sins and to perceive something beyond the sensible. Lily Sabbath is the novel’s great failure, it seems to me: she is a kind of Lolita-like figure, representing how a degenerate society has victimized its children, but neither her oppression nor her perversity are ever fully accounted for, and this promising character seems to exist only to show that Hazel Motes has enough integrity not to sleep with her, even when she tries to persuade him to do so. She is a fascinating sketch, but ultimately seems extraneous to the narrative. (Were O’Connor a male writer, I suspect Wise Blood might have been entered in the rolls of “midcentury misogyny.”)
The last major character—aside from another fraudulent preacher, Hoover Shoats, who comes on the scene to throw into deeper relief Motes’s weirdly earnest and utterly non-faked counter-faith—is Motes’s landlady, Mrs. Flood. She gets the novel’s astonishing last chapter to herself: at first a study in complacency and narrow-mindedness, this self-satisfied middle-aged bigot eventually comes to love Motes sincerely and—the novel’s conclusion hints—to follow his example toward God.
Wise Blood is overall a startling allegory for the emptiness of modern, godless existence. In her essay, “Some Aspects of the Grotesque in Southern Fiction,” O’Connor famously said, “Whenever I’m asked why Southern writers particularly have a penchant for writing about freaks, I say it is because we are still able to recognize one.” With this statement, she referred to figures such as Enoch Emery and Mrs. Flood, individuals who are freakish because they are amputated from a spiritual context and justification. Hazel Motes, by contrast, is much less freakish than they are, because his errancy and willful perversion at least indicate a recognition of the true path. O’Connor regarded the perfectly adjusted modern individual as the greatest freak of all: writing of the archetypal 1950s “men in gray-flannel suits,” she judged that “these gentlemen are even greater freaks than what we are writing about now.” And O’Connor does judge: not illegitimately in her narrative voice, but properly in her narrative arrangement. Her denunciation of facile “compassion,” as quoted in my epigraph, has not aged a day, and the severity of her realistic allegory—what, following Hawthorne, she calls a romance—gives her novel the integrity and autonomy that one associates with a classic, a work whose concerns are sufficiently non-parochial, despite its magnificently particularized setting, to reach across time.
Still, I myself have not come to Jesus, so we non-believing readers, we stubborn moderns with “Motes” in our eyes, must find something other than the message in Wise Blood. The first thing I find to admire is O’Connor’s bold rejection of realism. In her “Grotesque” essay, O’Connor elaborates on her affinity with Hawthorne:
Hawthorne knew his own problems and perhaps anticipated ours when he said he did not write novels, he wrote romances. […] In these grotesque works, we find that the writer has made alive some experience which we are not accustomed to observe every day, or which the ordinary man may never experience in his ordinary life. We find that connections which we would expect in the customary kind of realism have been ignored, that there are strange skips and gaps which anyone trying to describe manners and customs would certainly not have left. Yet the characters have an inner coherence, if not always a coherence to their social framework. Their fictional qualities lean away from typical social patterns, toward mystery and the unexpected.
Wise Blood is as detailed and local as one could expect a novel to be, but its characters stand for more than themselves and are seen sub specie aeternitatis. Moreover, O’Connor’s sometimes vicious anti-sentimentality creates a zanily grim comedy that will keep any reader engaged in the novel, just to see what crazy, violent thing will happen next. O’Connor, like Shakespeare, plays to the groundlings, and this has served her posthumous reputation well: she remains a popular classic, because she shares as much with Tarantino as with Hawthorne.
Finally, there is O’Connor’s superb prose. Working after modernism decluttered English prose style, a student of Flaubert and Hemingway as much as of Poe and Hawthorne, O’Connor writes simple and precise descriptions that are studded with arresting metaphors: “the sky was an unpredictable surly gray like the back of an old goat.” She also borrows from cinema, often narrating as an dispassionate outside observer who reveals the story as she sees it; for instance, when Enoch Emery is walking the city streets in disguise after stealing the mummy, O’Connor’s narrator does not reveal Enoch’s identity until he removes his mask—that is, until she has seen who he is.
Wise Blood certainly has flaws. O’Connor is better at the short story than the novel, since the intensity and the ideogrammatic quality of the grotesque allegory will tend to spend their force over the length of an extended narrative. By the 150th page, I was beginning to think that even a romance needs a more grounded human perspective on its odd events and odder characters if its weirdness and aggression are not to become numbing. (I felt the same way, incidentally, about The Violent Bear It Away.) Perhaps O’Connor’s dryly ironic narrator serves such a function—as did Hawthorne’s narrative voice, that sane smooth style borrowed from the great English essayists—but even so, Wise Blood might have been 50 pages and a few characters shorter, especially given the ferocious compression of the last two chapters, which seem to say all that needs to be said at all about Hazel Motes and Enoch Emery. But those two last chapters make it all worthwhile—they redeem what has come before, and are reason enough to read Wise Blood, reason enough to call it a classic.