Wise Blood by Flannery O’Connor

Paperback, Reissue, 256 pages
Published February 6th 2007 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux (first published 1952)

“…that church where the blind don’t see and the lame don’t walk and what’s dead stays that way. Ask me about that church and I’ll tell you it’s the church that the blood of Jesus don’t foul with redemption…there was no Fall because there was nothing to fall from and no Redemption because there was no Fall and no Judgment because there wasn’t the first two. Nothing matters but that Jesus was a liar…”

Wise Blood is the story of Hazel Motes, a recently discharged twenty-something war vet who returns home to Tennessee to find the town abandoned and his childhood home dilapidated and deserted. So, he leaves the town behind and takes a train to Taulkinham, where he meets the crude, ignorant and possibly OCD/mentally ill Enoch Emery. Together, they encounter a blind preacher turned sometimes street beggar, Asa Hawks, and his 15-year-old daughter, Sabbath (her name in itself an ironic play on the themes of this novel). Motes becomes entangled with the Hawks’ as he embarks on the notion of atheism and—fully embracing it partially out of resistance to Asa Hawks’ idea that Motes needs to repent for his sins—starts his own church, the Church Without Christ. As he starts preaching his message of salvation through truth from the nose of his old car, he encounters a street-preaching swindler, Hoover Shoats, who steals Motes’ idea of the Church Without Christ and uses it to get rich, also preaching a varied version of that message on the streets, which effectively pushes Motes out of his own market and idea. When he finds out that Asa Hawks is also a crook, he takes up with his daughter, who proclaims of him:“I said look at those pee-can eyes and go crazy, girl! That innocent look don’t hide a thing, he’s just pure filthy right down to the guts, like me. The only difference is I like being that way and he don’t.Soon after, Motes’ disillusionment starts its descent into completeness, as a series of events pushes him to enraged murder and finally to self-mutilization and recluseness. Meanwhile, Enoch Emery’s story line branches off into him becoming enamored with, and then literally turning into, a gorilla, which came off as a little slapstick in its presentation and fell flat for me as a whole.

Wise Blood seemed to hit the ground running toward something definite and profound from the very first page. Rushing toward an abandoned home in Tennessee, then rushing toward Hazel Motes’ warped coming-of-age prophecy of atheism and a “new jesus” (yes, lowercase). O’Connor hit on salient, hard-hitting moments of ironic verity and outright cultural authenticity in true Southern Gothic fashion: Christianity versus atheism in the post-war South, Christian hypocrisy, redemption, isolation, and coming of age. In that way, it had its moments of dazzling literary insight. The characters were, for the most part, well realized, each offering a necessary ingredient to this Gothic tradition. And yet.

A little-known fact of this this novel is that it was originally not a novel at all but a collection of short stories (published in various publications). The first chapter of Wise Blood was an expanded version of Flannery O’Connor’s Master’s thesis, and several of the other chapters were reworked versions that she revised so that they could all fit together as a novel. Hence, Wise Blood was born, but the thing is, it didn’t work 100% as a fluid work of literature. For the most part, it did. For the most part, this novel read as a cohesive story with fully realized narrative arcs and satirical if not poignant realizations throughout. Yet, Enoch Emery’s character dragged down the latter part of the novel, because the short story that he derived from, “Enoch and the Gorilla,” did not fit with the theme of the rest of the novel. It felt disparate, like it didn’t belong, which, of course, is true since it was originally a separate short story, but it should not have felt that way to the reader.

O’Connor’s use of vernacular was spectacular.

The sense of setting was complete.

And yet, though we make a habit of saying here in the South, “One monkey don’t stop no show,” in this case, it certainly did. 3.5 stars ***

The Heavenly Table by Donald Ray Pollock

I received an advance-read copy of this book from the publisher, Doubleday, via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

Hardcover, 384 pages
Expected publication: July 12th 2016 by Doubleday
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When I sat down with The Heavenly Table by Donald Ray Pollock, I was all set to have my love for Southern Gothicism stoked here—forget that, even just my love for a great read in the Southern tradition. Anyone who follows my reviews knows that I’m a sucker for it. Yet, The Heavenly Table fell unexpectedly flat for me, I’m sorry to say.

Here you’ll find the story of the Jewett boys, regular hillbillies turned cowboys in 1917 Georgia, chasing a Buffalo Bill-type dream and their own versions of “the heavenly table,” a metaphor used throughout this novel. Here, you’ll also find an entire cast of colorful characters whose big personalities jostled for space within these pages.

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For me, the problem with this read came down to two very important counterparts that didn’t marry well here: plot and soul. You can have a wonderful premise—a killer idea and plotline all sketched out—but that doesn’t mean that it will be executed with a real feeling of ambiance and depth. And for a novel whose blurb wants it to live up to the Southern Gothic tradition (with references to Quentin Tarantino, no less!) it has to have soul. Period. Otherwise, peel that label off and call it something else. Call it “Django with a 3 Stooges cowboy twist.”

The premise of Pollock’s The Heavenly Table was great—the characters filled the pages; the vernacular added some awesome local color; the setting was rich and there were a couple of Gothic elements that tipped their hat toward the tradition of O’Connor and Faulkner. I even saw Tarantino here, featuring cartoon-like descriptions of gore and debauchery that were cinematic and would translate well on the big screen. (In fact, this one would probably make a better movie than it did a read.) In short, the fundamentals of the story itself were fine, maybe even good, but I never felt any depth. I’m not even talking “feels,” just enough depth to make it funny, to make it feel real even in its raucousness.

     The Heavenly Table was beautiful as a metaphor but fell short in that it never gripped me and pulled me in. True enough, each character had some spit and dirt to them—in that way, it was gritty—but the rest of the grit came off as superficial and referential to other great works, to others’ great styles, and not fully of its own character. It didn’t make me yearn for the next flip of a page to see what lay in wait on the other side. To me, it read as classroom-learned writing with no natural swag. This was my first foray into Pollock’s works. It read like a 1st novel, which is surprising coming from an author with the renown that Pollock has amassed thus far. What I will say about this 3rd major work of Pollock’s is that he did let his own Southern Ohio, blue-collar roots hang out with a confident flamboyance and devil-may-care flair that I appreciated, making the read feel authentically Southern.

But Rule #1 is always: Don’t tell me; show me. And I think that one was tossed to the wind here in favor of superfluous character plotlines and backstories—I still can’t figure out what some of those characters were even doing in there, let alone why they had entire backstories of their own—and debaucherous accounts of adventure that I could see but not feel, not taste, not touch myself. It fell short of being fully 3-D for me, cinematic though the plot aimed to be. Without that added depth of flavor, without that thickened roux at its base, the cinematic appeal lost a little of its verve and sparkle— it lost some of its Rabelaisian humor appeal.

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That extra word count from all of those storylines would’ve been better served filling out the story of the main characters. This one had too many ideas that could have been narrowed down to a much better read. Yes, yes, I get the attempt at weaving several intricately woven stories together so that they come together surprisingly in the end—it’s awe-inspiring when done right—but this wasn’t that. This was too many ideas—some of which were poorly executed or simply unnecessary—with the end result being me confused about who was who and whether or not they would show up again often enough in the novel for me to even care about them (sometimes the answer was no). Really, The Heavenly Table took the long way to its finale and dragged in too many characters to do it, with the end result not having the kick that it could have. There were serial killers tossed in for the hell of it, like “oh by the ways” tossed in just for good measure, just to make sure the read was good and raunchy. I didn’t respond well to that kind of fabricated grit. Was Heavenly Table gritty (as the blurb stated) because it had heart or because debauchery was heaped on debauchery? I’d say the latter, like a bawdy and mildly depraved version of the Slapstick genre: events were just happening just to be happening at some times, and that really turned me off.

Yet, to others, this might be a real selling point, as it was indeed Rabelaisian. For those who want to ride along with a good ole early 20th century American adventure story, complete with liquor, whores, murder and debauchery, this is most definitely the read for you—and you’ll LOVE it! But if you’re looking for more depth based on the blurb, don’t be fooled by the O’Connor reference—you won’t find that kind of true soul of allegory here. 2.5 stars **

We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson

Paperback, Penguin Classics Deluxe, 160 pages
Published October 31st 2006 by Penguin (first published 1962)

      “The least Charles could have done,” Constance said, considering seriously, “was shoot himself through the head in the driveway.”

Have you ever tiptoed down a hall in a dark house late at night, not sure if you really heard that bump in the night? That is what reading this novel was like, in all of the best ways possible. Shirley Jackson is a renowned master at the macabre, the unnerving, the Gothic genre, and this work puts her talents on full display—in HD. Most have read The Lottery, whether forced by the classically inclined high school English teacher or for the pure love of the unusual, and here you will find the same masterful foreshadowing, biting eeriness and haunting cruelties found in a small-town community. As my Grandma used to say, “You can always count on those ole’ townies to hide the most secrets, put on the most airs and turn on ya the quickest,” and Jackson, once again, highlighted those small-town characteristics in a manner that left hairs raised on the arms and resonance echoing at the finish of each chapter.

We Have Always Lived in the Castle is a novel about two young adult sisters, Mary Katherine and Constance, who have essentially become lepers in their small town after an incident at their family dinner table six years before that left half of their family poisoned to death, one sister on trial for murder and the other in an orphanage. The women go about their lives, hardly ever even leaving their property and being openly hated by the townspeople, kept company by their ailing, eccentric uncle who loves to talk about “what happened” and their loyal cat, until one day a cousin comes a knocking and their lives are forever changed. It slowly becomes apparent that Merricat (Mary Katherine) is not 100% mentally stable, as she believes she has voodoo-like magical powers to protect herself, her family and her home, she has fantasies about how her dead family members should have treated her before they died, and she harbors obviously sadistic and murderous feelings towards the townspeople who tease and abuse them.

“I would have liked to come into the grocery store some morning and see them all, even the Elberts and the children, lying there crying with the pain and dying. I would then help myself to groceries, I thought, stepping over their bodies, taking whatever I fancied from the shelves, and go home, with perhaps a kick for Mrs. Donell while she lay there.”

This story had an aspect of urban legend to it, the makings of it and the effect that it has on those who hear it, who believe it. Jackson wove the tale so beautifully that I didn’t even realize how engrossed in their lives—a sign of truly good writing—I’d become until the cousin started changing the sisters’ routine and poking his nose around in that way that is uncomfortable for readers invested in the protagonists, in that way that makes your heart rate quicken just a touch. This story was a peep behind closed doors, both literally and figuratively. It was a look inside the protective bubble of recluse-ness, while simultaneously being an exploration of man’s nature to fear and hate what we do not, ourselves, understand. It was also social commentary in that delicious way that only Southern Gothicism can offer (though this novel has no clear mention of place, it is widely believed to have been set in Vermont, making it technically not Southern Gothic, though every other aspect of it is every bit that genre): it tore back the layers on the small town where everyone knows your name, on the myth of genteelism, courtesy, manners, and community that we all think of from this era of writing (Castle was originally published in 1962). What does it mean to be an outsider in a town like this, in a town where there is no degree of separation between any? In a town that needs a common enemy to unite over in gossip and violence alike? Because, you see, every bully loves a weaker kid, and there’s nothing more cruel than the mob mentality turned against a common enemy. Don’t believe me? Then you haven’t read The Lottery.

Castle was everything I’d hoped it’d be as a lover and writer of this genre. It was the macabre dressed in politesse that made you think twice—a skill extremely difficult to hone and, thus, all the more laudable when it is—the oddity of family unity and where those bonds can take you, for better or for worse; it was the sharp little dagger of lines like the one above and the what really happened there aspect of the dinner-table happening.

“It did happen. I remember that it happened…”

Eerie.

Easily five stars! *****