Tag Archives: American Literature

Book Review: A Good Man Is Hard To Find

A Good Man Is Hard To FindThe grandmother didn’t want to go to Florida. She wanted to visit some of her connections in east Tennes- see and she was seizing at every chance to change Bailey’s mind. Bailey was the son she lived with, her only boy. He was sitting on the edge of his chair at the table, bent over the orange sports section of the Journal. “Now look here, Bailey,” she said, “see here, read this,” and she stood with one hand on her thin hip and the other rattling the newspaper at his bald head. “Here this fellow that calls himself The Misfit is aloose from the Federal Pen and headed toward Florida and you read here what it says he did to these people. Just you read it. I wouldn’t take my children in any direction with a criminal like that aloose in it. I couldn’t answer to my conscience if I did.”””

It’s been a while since I updated this thing. Between the last entry and now, I have resigned from work (more free time, yay!) and am in the midst of preparing for grad school in New York. I am also struggling through a haunting work of African literature, about which I shall write very soon.

Today I read a short story, “A Good Man Is Hard to Find“, by Flannery O’Connor that I enjoyed immensely. It is part of a short stories collection of the same name.

The premise
A typical American family comprising the “grandmother”, her son Bailey, his unnamed wife, and their two children June Star and John Wesley. They prepare for a road trip to Florida, when the “grandmother” really wants to go to Tennessee. There’s also an escaped murderer, named The Misfit, on the loose and reportedly headed to Florida. The story gets its title from a conversation the grandmother has with Red Sammy, a restaurant operator the family encounter on the road, who shares her sentiment of the steady state of decline the world is in. He remarks, “A good man is hard to find…”, as they lament together the degeneration.

I found the grandmother to be a grotesque figure and a critique of the American south – or what little I know of pre-civil war US history. She is self-centred, rude, and also indirectly racist with her constant, nostalgic rambling of the good ol’ days at the plantations, alluding to slavery in a subtle way. There’s a hint of irony in the fate that befalls her and her family. In the beginning of the story, she attempts to persuade her family to visit Tennessee instead; among the several excuses she gives, one is that she can never appease her conscience if she lets her son and his family head to Florida when an escaped murder on the loose is also reportedly heading there. Though we are given ample hints at the start to know she is being facetious, when in reality she just wants to go to Tennessee, it is ironic that of all the people Florida-bound, it is her family who encounters The Misfit.

The selfishness of her character is shown towards the end, when the rest of her family is being taken to the woods to be shot, she is insisting The Misfit pray to Jesus and redeem himself. All of this serves as a distraction for her to bargain a way out while her daughter-in-law and grandchildren are being hauled off to the wood to be shot. What makes her call for praying suspect is that up till then, nowhere in the story is it hinted that she’s a devout Christian; only that she is awfully concerned with her outward appearance. After she dies, The Misfit remarks the grandmother would’ve been a good woman (implying one who is devoutly religious as she was trying to be towards the end) if, “it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life.”

I liked The Misfit. Though we’re lead to believe from the start he’s an escaped murderer, there is doubt infused in the confrontation scene. He informs the grandmother and the readers that he has been wrongfully implicated for the murder of his father, and that his old man died in the flu epidemic. Keeping in line with the religious talk, he compares himself to Jesus – both have been wrongfully accused of a crime they didn’t commit, only for The Misfit the authorities had the “papers” to prove it. He reminds the readers, however, that he never saw the supposed papers proving his guilt, which again sows doubt over his morality and makes him an exciting character.

Use of literary device
There’s plenty of foreshadowing in this story, both large and small and from the onset you, the reader, get the impression this will not end well for the family. Foreshadowing as a literary device is something I really enjoy, so picking up the clues and hints were fun. For example, when they pull over at Red Sammy’s, the place looks less like a rest stop and more like a hellish graveyard of some kind. This foreshadows what lies ahead for the family. Similarly, when the family meets with the accident, the car that comes to their “rescue” looks like a “hearse”, once again foreshadowing their impending deaths.

This is the first time I’m reading of Flannery O’Connor, who is usually associated with the southern gothic style of fiction. I can’t say I know much about this genre but the story was interesting for me because it was at once great and also tragic. Interesting because the family dynamics mirror how one would envisage a typical family anywhere in the world – perhaps a little stereotypical in the way the grandmother acts as the overbearing mother-in-law, Bailey as the detached, inwardly angry son, and the two children as typically disrespectful “brats”. The unnamed wife shows not a single shade of personality and perhaps why she remained unnamed. It is also tragic because of the implied, off-screen murder of the family, including the children and the baby, which ultimately was a waste. In fact, The Misfit recognises this when he admonishes one of the boys who says killing the family has been fun. He ends the story with, “It’s not pleasure in life”, indicating all of the grim excitement the story built up to resulted in an unimpressive climax. One last thing I find interesting is that throughout the story, Bailey and his family ignores everything his mother does or says – except the one time they listened to her, it ended in their tragic demise.

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Book Review: A Single Man

ASM_Cover“And I’ll tell you something else. A minority has its own kind of aggression. It absolutely dares the majority to attack it. It hates the majority–not without a cause, I grant you. It even hates the other minorities, because all minorities are in competition; each one proclaims that its sufferings are the worst and its wrongs are the blackest.” – p.72, A Single Man

Christopher Isherwood’s A Single Man is a tale of isolation and loneliness surrounding its central character – a homosexual university professor, George Falconer, who is grieving the loss of his partner of 16 years, Jim.

The novel is 186-page long and centres around a single day in the life of George, using the stream of consciousness narrative. From the start, the stage is set and readers are given ample hints about George’s isolation from society (though the cause of it slowly unravels over the pages) as he goes about his day, navigating the complex social structure of America in the 60s and 70s. For example:

“Obediently the body levers itself out of bed–wincing from twinges in the arthritic thumbs and the left knee…here’s the mess it has somehow managed to get itself into during its fifty-eight years…it starts to breathe through its mouths…it must be dressed up in clothes because it is going outside…it is called George.” (p.11)

In the opening segment, George is entirely referred to in the third person, indicating the detachment between the body that is George and the personality that is George – both of which converge together into the human being that “others must be able to identify…” (p.11) This identification classifies George as an elderly white man and nothing beyond it. The denial of his true nature by those around him is a typical form of repression, where the fact that he is homosexual is entirely erased. One of my old university professor explained it like this: If you have a name, and I refuse to address you by that name, then to me you are nothing because I am denying your single most important form of identity in this society.

The tragedy in the novel is that as the pages turn, we get a deeper sense and understanding of George’s isolation from this world. We see him interact with a slew of characters – like Grant, Doris, the kid at the gym, Charlotte, and even Kenny – but their interaction never reaches the kind of intimacy he once shared with Jim; which makes them futile and perfunctory. It reaches a staggering conclusion when in his search for the new Jim, George realises despite the growing, mutual attraction between Kenny and him, the former can never replace Jim. Not because Jim was irreplaceable (okay this is debatable) but because the replacement did not play by society’s rule – much like George and Jim’s relationship in the first place.

As a commentator on the state of the gay man in 50s and 60s America, the novel also discusses the struggle George (and as an extension to the homosexual community) faces with another minority – the woman – while competing for the affection of a man. A Single Man illustrates this perfectly by the hostile animosity George harbours for Doris – a dying woman who once had an affair with Jim.

“Gross insucking vulva, sly, ruthless, greedy flesh, in all the bloom and gloss and arrogant resilience of youth, demanding that George shall step aside, bow down and yield to the female prerogative, hide his unnatural head in shame. I am Doris. I am Woman. I am Bitch-Mother Nature. The Church and the Law and the State exist to support me. I claim my biological rights. I demand Jim.” (p.96)

This goes back to the quote at the top about the antagonistic nature of the relation between two minorities – they are in constant conflict with each other, even though they want the same thing. They feel threatened by the other, they believe the sense of oppression and injustice dealt to them by the majority is more painful, more tragic, and deserves greater sympathy. Yet, without Jim’s presence, the conflict between Doris and George eventually abates and their animosity dissipates simply because you cannot be a minority without the presence of the majority – and Jim, a likely bisexual white man, was the majority in this case.

All in all, a fantastic and meaningful read. The stream of consciousness and slow-moving plot can sometimes get in the way but in the end, persistence pays because the ending is tragically beautiful.

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