Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Good Country People

Well, it takes all kinds of people to make the world go 'round.' It's very good we aren't all alike.”
--Mrs. Hopewell from "A Circle in the Fire."

In Flannery O' Connor's story, “The Artificial Nigger,” two bumpkins, a grandfather and his grandchild, take a train from their rural homestead to Atlanta. All his life, the boy has been putting on airs, because even though he was raised in the country by the old man after his mother's untimely death, he had been born in a metropolis. The old man wants to show him that the boy's hubris is unwarranted since the city is no place for good folks. But when they become lost in a negro neighborhood, he too, has his own pride challenged, and he utterly fails in his responsibility as the boy's caretaker and role model, so much so that “now he was wandering into a black strange place where nothing was like it had ever been before, a long old age without respect and an end that would be welcome because it would be the end.” In other words, screwing up has serious life-changing consequences.

Today short fiction has been accused of existential navel-gazing where nothing ever seems to happen. These attacks are not unfair. In our ever-increasing attention deficit disorders, so-called “microfiction” has replaced the classic short story and its meticulous structuring in which setting, mood, character are as elemental as narrative. And what makes good storytelling really? What is compelling about human drama? Same as it ever was: nothing engages a reader like when we have something to lose, whether it be pride, attachments, or love.

In O'Connor's story collection, A Good Man Is Hard to Find,men and (especially) women deal with loss. In “Good Country People,” a 30-year-old academic gimp living with her mother lets herself be seduced by a hayseed bible salesman for intellectual kicks, only to have the boy doublecross her. The female farmer in “A Circle in the Fire,” has to deal with an ex-employee's adolescent son and his pals arriving uninvited and camping out on her property without politeness or permission. And in “The Displaced Person” a female landowner takes on as tenants a Polish family escaping the Holocaust. The refugee is industrious, the best investment she's ever made, but he wants to marry off a niece to one of the negroes on the farm so he can bring her to America too and Mrs. McIntyre is so outraged at the affront to the South's politics of racial purity she connives to fire him in spite of his diligence. She's willing to lose the best farmhand she ever had because of her ancestral fears of miscegenation.

O'Connor's characters, not always likable, nevertheless represent well our baser human instincts, those of pride and envy, often manifesting themselves in class war or racial violence: “I'm as good as you any day of the week,” the yokel huckster tells the PhD gimp when he triumphantly discovers the source of her vulnerability. Due the thoroughly unequal distribution of wealth in America's feudal south, the haves had much to worry about from the have-nots, who by cunning or duplicity, take what they can get from the other. These characters are flawed, all of them, so much so that there are really no heroes or villains, only fuck-ups. In “The Life You Save May Be Your Own,” a hobo-cum-huckster named Mr. Shiftlet looking for work on a derelict property, has “a look of composed dissatisfaction as if he understood life thoroughly.” His is a treacherous wisdom: by the end of the story, he has abandoned a blind woman he'd pretended to marry, driving off with the family car.

Flannery O'Connor with two of her pet peacocks

Stories about loss are rarely known for their happy endings. But perhaps Flannery O'Connor knew something about loss-- she'd lost her father to lupus at an impressionable age and was diagnosed with the disease herself when she was a young woman just starting out on her literary career. The knowledge she would die young (she passed away in 1964 at the age of 39) no doubt trickled down into her work, the painful recognition that nothing in life can be held forever, life itself most importantly. Change is the only constant, and those who fail to take this into account will be the most devastated with this inevitable reckoning.

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