A Good Man Is Hard to Find by Flannery O’Connor: As always, perfection

Mid-20th-century rural America written with devastating penetration and mastery

Flannery O’Connor in 1952. Photograph: APIC/Getty

Flannery O’Connor in 1952. Photograph: APIC/Getty

 

“I got,” he said, tapping his knuckles on the floor to emphasise the immensity of what he was going to say, “a moral intelligence!” and his face pierced out of the darkness into a shaft of doorlight and he stared at her as if he were astonished himself at this impossible truth.

The old woman was not impressed with the phrase. “I told you you could hang around and work for food,” she said, “if you don’t mind sleeping in that car yonder.”

“Why, listen, lady,” he said with a grin of delight, “the monks of old slept in their coffins!”

“They wasn’t as advanced as we are,” the old woman said.

As always, perfection. Here are stories of rural and small-town America in the mid-20th century, written with such devastating penetration, it’s as though they were done with a scalpel rather than a pen. Each story feels like a stab in the gut: we’re offered a particular set of circumstances (life on a ranch, life stuck with mother), usually upset by some seemingly small but cataclysmic event, often the arrival of someone new or unexpected (three boys, a Bible salesman, a Displaced Person from Poland).

Many of the stories contain characters who believe themselves to be good, hard-done-by people revealed to be small and mean-spirited just like the rest of us.

O’Connor understands each of her characters so thoroughly, she gives the impression of having zipped down their skin, skull to heels, before stepping inside. In contrast, there’s something of the Millennial Mode in her authorial tone and style; she treats everything with intelligent, ironic disdain, while simultaneously caring earnestly enough to write the stories in the first place.

With such a good storyteller, we could too easily forget that O’Connor is also a master of descriptive language. Upon rereading, I was startled by the plenitude of sentences radiating such linguistic and imagistic beauty:

“The birds revolved downward and dropped lightly in the top of the highest pine and sat hunch-shouldered as if they were supporting the sky.”

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