The inclusion of Flannery O’Connor as a character ought to be enough to blah-proof any novel, wouldn’t you think? Ann Napolitano’s A Good Hard Look has been sitting on my shelf for a couple of years like a reserve pitcher; I assumed that, with one of my favorite authors at its core, this book had to be good. I am so sorry to say that I was disappointed.
This novel (which lacks one single, clear protagonist – there’s a problem right off the bat) revolves around Melvin and Cookie Whiteson, who are moving to Cookie’s hometown of Milledgeville, Georgia to get married and start a family. Melvin, an orphaned heir to a wealthy family in New York, half-heartedly joins a law practice, but overall he is nonplussed by Milledgeville, Georgia and by just about everything else he encounters (notable exception to follow). He is pathologically phlegmatic and bored. He is attentive and affectionate toward Cookie in a way, but nowhere did I have the sense that these two characters were passionately in love with one another. I don’t know, maybe someone needs to reach in and muck around with Melvin’s neurotransmitters or something.
On the night before Melvin and Cookie’s wedding, everyone in town is awake all night because Flannery O’Connor’s peacocks won’t stop shrieking. Melvin and Cookie take advantage of the fact that they are awake to have sex for the first time. In the mid-coital hubbub, Cookie falls off the bed and hits her eye on the night table, and at her wedding the next day she is sporting a black eye, which of course is foreshadowing, right? Right.
And then there’s the utterly baffling character of Lona Waters. Lona makes curtains and smokes pot. She has a husband named Bill, who is a police officer, and a daughter named Gigi, who spends most of her time at the home of a neighbor named Miss Mary, who is the town gossip. Miss Mary has a son named Joe, who is engaging in various adolescent behaviors like locking himself in his room all afternoon and not wanting to tell his parents how his day went, and Miss Mary contacts Lona and suggests that since Miss Mary takes care of Gigi all afternoon, it would be only right for Lona to “take care” of Joe (who is seventeen) in return. So Lona hires Joe to be her curtain-making assistant and initiates him into the world of recreational drugs.
The only other major characters in the novel are Flannery O’Connor and her mother, Regina. This novel takes place in the last year of Flannery’s life. Her lupus causes her terrible pain, but she works tirelessly at her final novel (The Violent Bear it Away) and on her last few short stories. She is a controversial figure in town because everyone assumes she is writing about them. They recognize their town and some key personalities in O’Connor’s stories and novels, and they also recognize that the characters in O’Connor’s work are often petty, ignorant, and mean – and as a result they feel exposed and judged (I should add that I feel exactly the same way when I read O’Connor’s work, and I was born after her death – so this sense of feeling judged has more to do with O’Connor’s ability to capture the universal than to her descriptions of any one resident of Milledgeville – but you knew that). We learn later in the novel that Cookie actually left town and moved to New York (where she met Melvin) specifically because of a LOOK that Flannery O’Connor gave her when she presented an award at Cookie’s high school graduation.
Anyway, long story short: Melvin falls in love with Flannery O’Connor. They never kiss or make love or have an honest conversation about their feelings for each other; what happens instead is that Melvin gives Flannery driving lessons. She loves the independence of writing and the chance to spend some time away from her mother, and he loves – well, he loves being around a woman who doesn’t mind saying what she thinks and isn’t driven by convention the way Cookie is. When Melvin and Cookie have a baby, Melvin stops visiting, and Flannery is hurt and angry. The next time he visits, she refuses to speak to him.
At the same time, another unlikely couple is also falling in love: Lona Waters and Joe. When Joe first started working as Lona’s assistant, he had a slight crush on Lona’s daughter Gigi, but he soon realizes that he prefers Gigi’s mother, who looks like Gigi but is older and more mature and always has a pocket full of marijuana. They smoke together in her car before and after they go to work, and one day he decides to kiss her. She rebuffs him at first, but later she welcomes his advances and initiates more. The two are hired to make curtains for every room in Cookie and Melvin’s house, and they are often alone in the huge house, where they find little nooks and corners in which to make love. They have plans to leave Milledgeville after Joe’s high school graduation. They want to go to New York and get married.
OK, enough with the boring stuff. Let’s fast-forward to the ending, when Bill Waters catches Lona and Joe in bed and shoots Joe. The gunshot freaks out Flannery O’Connor’s peacocks, who proceed TO MURDER MELVIN AND COOKIE’S BABY. Yes, that’s right – Flannery O’Connor’s peacocks murder a baby but still don’t save this novel from being deeply and mortally humdrum. I feel nothing at all for any of the characters in this novel – not even Cookie, who ends up in a mental hospital, not even Gigi, whose father goes to prison for killing Joe while her mother sinks into a deep grief for her teenaged lover, and not even Flannery O’Connor, whom I am already predisposed to love. I carry Flannery O’Connor’s stories with me wherever I go, and I can fall into moments of sympathy for her even when I’m just driving down the highway or slicing an apple – but this novel in which she is a character did nothing for me.
I could go on about a number of small annoyances. How plausible is it, really, that Lona Waters had an endless supply of marijuana? I know full well that marijuana was not invented at the Polo Fields in San Francisco in the summer of 1967 – but did small-town Southern curtain-making housewives walk around with a week’s supply on their person at all times? Similarly, when Joe smells the marijuana, he knows immediately what it is – would a Milledgeville, Georgia high school boy in 1962 have known the smell of cannabis? Again, maybe he would. But in a novel like this, whose characters are so hollow and inauthentic, even small implausible moments start to seem monumental to a frustrated reader.
I do think, by the way, that building a novel around a figure like Flannery O’Connor is certainly an ambitious and difficult thing to do. I am not suggesting that I could have done better – though I might have stopped after fifty pages and decided that it wasn’t working. (I am a master at stopping novels after fifty pages and deciding they aren’t working).
So I don’t recommend this novel, but I do recommend Flannery O’Connor. If you haven’t read her yet, buy her Collected Stories and read them in reverse order, back to front. You won’t be disappointed.