The Magazine

Southern Gothic

The universal voice in Milledgeville, Georgia.

Apr 13, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 29 • By SHAWN MACOMBER
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Flannery

A Life of Flannery O'Connor

by Brad Gooch

Little, Brown, 464 pp., $30

It is a great, albeit somewhat paradoxical, compliment to Brad Gooch that, midway through Flannery, readers may be tempted to set the book aside unfinished. His portrait of the singular Georgia author who improbably wed contemporary Southern Gothic literature's hardboiled, earth-bound sensibility to a believer's transcendent fire-and-brimstone vision of fallen man's ancient tribulation is so exquisitely rendered that, as the end draws nigh, the thought of watching O'Connor--a mere 39 years old and at the height of her powers--suffer and die of the same lupus that snatched her father from her as a child becomes a bit much to bear.

It is O'Connor herself, drawling from the pages of Flannery, that puts the kibosh on such sentimental squeamishness. This is a woman, after all, who when reluctantly schlepped off to the holy grotto at Lourdes ("I am one of those people who could die for his religion sooner than take a bath for it") later confided that she had, despite her grave illness and unwavering faith, nonetheless "prayed there for the novel I was working on, not for my bones, which I care about less." Scant weeks before shuffling off this mortal coil, O'Connor was revising stories and correcting proofs of Everything That Rises Must Converge, frequently from a hospital bed, unbowed to the end.

"The world was made for the dead," Mason Tarwater, the crazed backwoods prophet tells his nephew in The Violent Bear It Away, published in 1963, a year before she died. "Think of all the dead there are. There's a million times more dead than living and the dead are dead a million times longer than the living are alive." Thus chastened with regard to the expired, into whose hordes we are all destined to assimilate, it becomes easier to turn to the life that she lived in full.

For O'Connor diehards, Flannery will serve as a bounty of revelation and context, from the long, deliberative years of revisions and re-imaginings which eventually begat Wise Blood to the events and individuals that inspired some of her most memorable works. For example, the basis for the story "A Stroke of Good Fortune" was an excised subplot from Wise Blood, with the pregnant, in denial Ruby originally cast as Hazel Motes's sister. Enoch Emery's psychotic encasement in an ape suit was likely drawn from the marketing hullabaloo O'Connor saw in Times Square around Mighty Joe Young. Unrequited love for a traveling Harcourt Brace textbook salesman helped spark the four-day writing flurry that produced the classic story "Good Country People."

Flannery is rife with such delicious bits. But there is also plenty to recommend it to readers outside O'Connor's considerable circle of devotees. With minimal inferential psychobabble, Gooch presents a rousing tale of a quintessentially American artist, whose industry ("Well, I thought I had better get to working on a novel, so I got to work and wrote one," she replied when queried on the origins of Wise Blood), fierce individualism, and boldness summoned into being an unlikely triumph.

Today, the Library of America volume of O'Connor's collected works outsells William Faulkner's--though not likely his Oprah's Book Club boxed set! Andalusia, the Milledgeville, Georgia, farm where O'Connor lived, worked, and moseyed around atop her "aluminum legs" (crutches), is a tourist destination. Her work has been published in more than 40 countries. Who would have dared suggest all of this would pass when, at age 26, a year before Wise Blood appeared, O'Connor was handed a medical diagnosis that was, in effect, a death sentence?

Endearing peculiarities early proved O'Connor a bird of a different feather--a cliché presumably pardonable when applied to an owner of an extensive menagerie of winged creatures, including beloved peacocks in whose tail feathers she observed "a map of the universe." And also because there are precious few other clichés you could saddle onto a woman who, as a young girl, brought castor oil sandwiches to school to avoid the whole lunch sharing/trading banality. Or who, before age 16, penned biting satires of both Proust's Remembrance of Things Past entitled Recollections on My Future Childhood ("It was my first sardine .  .  . bruised & blue from the crowding") as well as her own family ("Seven copies were printed and distributed by me. It was in the naturalistic vein and was not well received") and sewed her pet duckling a "whole outfit of underwear and clothes" for a Home Economics final.