Crack open a Flannery O’Connor short story and you’ll almost certainly find a couple of things. The rural south in the middle of the last century. Catholics and Protestants and Atheists. Believers and Non-Believers. An odd protagonist, who doesn’t quite fit in: a child fascinated by religion, a woman who runs her own farm, a man who is weak and plagued with nostalgia. In any other tale, O’Connor’s characters would be the sidekick or the comic relief. Here, they’re front and center.
In A Good Man is Hard to Find and Other Stories, things are never totally what they seem. It is not the deception of a murder mystery in which the writer wields misdirection as a storytelling weapon, but a worldview in which apparent advantages are not so advantageous, in which violation and trickery are commonplace. Pay attention to the titles: they almost always refer to someone or something different than they first appear to.
O’Connor is a famous short-story-ist for a reason. The stories in this collection are well-crafted, thoughtful, and entertaining. The catch is that, at this point, they’re dated and they speak to anxieties about religion and livelihood and attitudes about gender and race that haven’t translated to an urbanized, increasingly connected world. This is not to imply that these aren’t modern issues, rather that O’Connor’s characters’ approach to them sets off, well, alarm bells. The fetishization of a disabled body. The frequent assessment of people of color as stupid and lazy. Xenophobia against immigrants. O’Connor’s stories provide a snapshot into a particular way of thinking at a particular historical moment. Insofar as they have a larger message or moral, it has not carried across time to reach universality.
A Good Man is Hard to Find and Other Stories contains engaging and unusual stories. It doesn’t pierce the soul or strike awe into the heart.
Up Next: Underworld by Don Delillo
Why? I’m tacking one of the longest novels in my library.