Flannery O’Connor died of lupus when she was thirty-nine, and here I two days after my thirty-ninth birthday, trying to channel her spirit enough to make some sense of Wise Blood. Several of O’Connor’s stories – “Good Country People,” “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” “Everything that Rises Must Converge” – are among my favorite written texts of all time, and I see myself and people I know in her tortured protagonists, many of whom seem to have had their egos surgically removed and then sewed back on again at awkward angles. My worldview is secular while hers is religious, and it’s true that some of her stories are a bit opaque to me because I can’t quite muster the religious lens I need in order to read them properly, but I do understand Catholic theology and can generally grasp at least part of what she has to say about redemption and pride, ego and the soul.
Yet I continue to have trouble with Wise Blood. The fifteen-or-so years since I read it for the first time have not imparted the right kind of wisdom to help me with this novel. I do find myself enjoying the novel more as it progresses – and I do think it’s clearer what O’Connor is trying to do once we get closer to the novel’s end. Overall, though, it feels like a hodgepodge of archetypes and symbols all tossed on a canvas Jackson Pollock-style. The language is arresting, though. Even if all I take away is the weird wisdom of O’Connor’s sentences, it is worth the time it took to read the novel again.
Wise Blood opens with our protagonist, Hazel Motes, being weird on a train. Often called “Haze,” as in a scrim in the air that partially obscures one’s vision, the character’s name suggests an inability to see properly, with “Motes” reminding readers of Matthew 7:5: “First cast the log out of thy own eye, and then thou shalt see clearly to cast the mote out of thy brother’s eye.” Right from the start, Hazel is associated with distorted perception. The point of view of the novel is omniscient overall, but in Chapter One we are reading the thoughts of Mrs. Wally Bee Hitchcock, a passenger on Hazel’s train. Mrs. Hitchcock is a typical O’Connor woman – talky and chirpy and not too bright. She’s a prototype for any number of her other characters: the grandmother in “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” Mrs. Hopewell in “Good Country People,” etc. From Mrs. Hitchcock, we learn that Hazel looks about twenty and “had a stiff black broad-brimmed hat on his lap, a hat that an elderly country preacher would wear. His suit was a glaring blue and the price tag was still stapled on the sleeve of it” (4). The price tag is a hilarious detail, of course, and it also characterizes the ethereal Hazel, who is totally oblivious to all social cues and norms.
I could go on like this all night, summarizing the novel sentence by sentence and pointing out everything that is hilarious and/or bizarre – but I really am working on writing more concise reviews, so I’m going to speed things up and prioritize commentary over summary. Here goes: Hazel is a man adrift. We know that his father, mother, and two brothers have died and that his grandfather was a preacher “with Jesus hidden in his head like a stinger” (14). We know he has spent the last four years in the army. We also know that he intends to be a preacher like his grandfather but that he becomes angry at any reference to Jesus – e.g. “He saw Jesus move from tree to tree in the back of his mind, a wild ragged figure motioning him to turn around and come off into the dark where he was not sure of his footing” (16). Eventually, Hazel buys a car that seems to have previously been used as a hearse; this car is routinely referred to “a rat-colored car,” and it has a tendency to appear at key moments when the other characters are involved in their own bizarre behaviors – in this sense, Hazel is the one moving from tree to tree in the background of the other characters’ lives. This is not the only way in which O’Connor seems to be setting Hazel up as a Christ figure.
After he gets off the train, Hazel heads to the home of Leora Watts, whose name and address he found on a bathroom wall. It is generally understood that Hazel loses his virginity here, though the episode is not narrated on the page. This is too bad, really, since I would imagine that Hazel Motes having sex would be something to see. After he leaves Mrs. Watts’ house, Hazel’s next contact is with Enoch Emery, who is truly a throbbing little blood clot of weirdness and is at the heart of what I don’t understand and don’t entirely like about this novel. Enoch is first described as “a thin nervous shadow walking backwards” (33) – which suggests, of course, that Enoch is also similar to the Christ that Hazel sees in the periphery. Hazel meets Enoch on a street corner, where he also meets a blind preacher named Hawks and his not-exactly-biological “daughter,” Sabbath. This scene quickly devolves into what will be the novel’s status quo: Hazel trying to get away from Enoch and Enoch determined to overtake Hazel and get his attention. I do think O’Connor means this as an allegory of sorts. The back of my copy describes Hazel as “a twenty-two year-old caught in an unending struggle against his innate, desperate faith.” Most of the time I don’t see any evidence in this novel that Hazel is a man of faith, but I do get what O’Connor is going for in establishing the dynamic between Hazel and Enoch: Enoch is Jesus or God or a spiritual way of seeing the world (and never was there a more bizarre deity, let me tell you), and Hazel – who doesn’t want to believe – is constantly running away from Enoch, who, in his weirdness, is impossible to ignore.
So Hazel buys his rat-colored car and O’Connor wows her audience with some fabulous figurative language: “His heart began to grip him like a little ape clutching the bars of its cage” (56), “He turned on the windshield wipers; they made a great clatter like two idiots clapping in church” (70), and “His face behind the windshield was sour and frog-like; it looked as if it had a shout closed up in it; it looked like one of those closet doors in gangster pictures where someone is tied to a chair behind it with a towel in his mouth” (82), for starters. Then we learn some more about Enoch’s daily routine. He works at the zoo, and his job is to guard a gate. When his shift is over at 2 pm, he goes to the public pool and hides in the bushes to watch women – you know, like you do. After he’s had his fill of this activity, he goes to “the dark secret center of the park” (78), which is a museum that houses (among many other things) a small mummified man. My best guess is that this display is either an African pygmy of some kind or (more likely) the remains of a Neanderthal or other ancestor of Homo Sapiens. But Enoch has somehow determined that this museum exhibit is “the new jesus,” so he sets out to steal it and bring it to Hazel Motes.
I’m summarizing again, aren’t I? This novel lends itself really well to the point-and-grunt school of literary criticism; this is a function of the fact that its characters are so weird and its language is so good. I just want to tell you about all the weird things Hazel and Enoch and others (oh, yes – there are others!) do and then have a little simile-appreciating party to celebrate O’Connor’s fantastic writing. But to sit down and formulate a theory about what it all means? That’s much harder.
When Hazel isn’t running away from Enoch, he is figuring out ways to antagonize Asa Hawks. He rents a room in the same house where Hawks lives and preaches on the same street corner. Hazel’s church is called the “Church of Christ Without Christ,” and its message is that “there was no Fall because there was nothing to fall from and no Redemption because there was no Fall and no Judgment because there wasn’t the first two. Nothing matters but that Jesus was a liar” (101). This is not the only time that Hazel seems to me to be a lot like the Misfit in “A Good Man is Hard to Find” – in fact, most of the second half of the book feels to me like a rough draft of the ending of that story. In the rooming house, Hazel befriends Sabbath (and also possibly has sex with her? The implication is unclear) and sneaks into Asa Hawks’ room to find evidence of the fact that he is only pretending to be blind.
Enoch continues to follow whichever weird inner voice is telling him to steal the museum exhibit and bring it to Hazel. The same voice tells him to paint his night table (which is essentially a cabinet made to hold a chamber pot) gold and then start calling it a “tabernacle” and shove the remains of the small humanoid creature from the museum inside it. He also reveals his deep contempt for animals; for example, this tirade on a painting of a moose: “The look of superiority on the animal’s face was so insufferable to Enoch that, if he hadn’t been afraid of him, he would have done something about it long ago. As it was, he couldn’t do anything in his room but what the smug face was watching, not shocked because nothing better could be expected and not amused because nothing was funny. If he had looked all over for one, he couldn’t have found a roommate that irritated him more. He kept up a constant stream of inner comment, uncomplimentary to the moose, though when he said anything aloud he was more guarded. The moose was in a heavy brown frame with leaf designs on it and this added to his weight and his self-satisfied look. Enoch knew the time had come when something had to be done; he didn’t know what was going to happen in his room, but when it happened, he didn’t want to have the feeling that the moose was running it. The answer came to him fully prepared: he realized with a sudden intuition that taking the frame off him would be equal to taking the clothes off him (although he didn’t have on any) and he was right because when he had done it, the animal looked so reduced that Enoch could only snicker and look at him out of the corner of his eye” (132-33).
I mean seriously – what can I possibly say about this? Pointing and grunting will have to do.
I do think O’Connor wants us to see that there is something strangely heroic about the way Enoch continues to follow his instincts, even though they make absolutely no sense. If she did intend for Hazel to be secretly a man of faith, then what she wants of him, of course, is to follow his instincts and turn to religion. It’s true that faith can lead people to thoughts and actions that are completely bizarre. Is feeling superior to a painting of a moose because one has shamed it by removing its frame really all that much weirder than believing that some mumbled words from a robed man who doesn’t have sex can turn a Styrafoam-like little wafer into the physical body of a man who died almost 2,000 years ago? For O’Connor, who is a true believer in ways that I most certainly am not, believing in things that can’t be explained by rational means is a central tenet of life – maybe THE central tenet of life. When this novel gets weird, I sense that this is O’Connor nudging us to remember that things that are weird or creepy or statistically unlikely can be vehicles to the truth just as well as (or better than) things that our own distorted, limited human senses declare to make sense.
Hazel picks up a few more “disciples” (this is O’Connor’s word) and has to fight to resist their attempts to commodify the Church of Christ without Christ; this resistance tends to take the form of getting inarticulately pissed off and getting in his car and burning rubber out of whatever parking lot or street corner is serving as his altar that day. Then there is a subplot involving Enoch and a gorilla, and then Flannery O’Connor tossed out another few dozen zingers, like “He was not handsome but under his smile there was an honest look that fitted into his face like a set of false teeth” (148). Then Hazel gets some symbolically significant wounds to the hands and feet and Enoch dresses up in blackface and Hazel’s car breaks down. And then Hazel blinds himself with lime, and after that the point of view shifts to his landlady, who has not been present in the novel up to this point but who decides she wants to marry Hazel. This move might seem to come from nowhere, but it’s worth it because the landlady’s desire to marry Hazel allows O’Connor to write, “[The landlady] had had a hard life, without pain and without pleasure, and she thought that now that she was coming to the last part of it, she deserved a friend. If she was going to be blind when she was dead, who better to guide her than a blind man? Who better to lead the blind than the blind, who knew what it was like?” (233)
Flannery O’Connor would have been great on Twitter. All those zingers, all those one-liners. For all I know, there may be someone out there right now tweeting in her name (Holden Caulfield follows me, so there’s hope…), but the minute I imagine some anonymous person tweeting under Flannery O’Connor’s name, I start to imagine someone very like Hazel Motes and Enoch Emery, someone searching for something in the physical world that will live up to what they feel in their souls, and of course they’ll fail – they’ll always fail.
If nothing else, Wise Blood is road map to Flannery O’Connor’s unconscious. I’ll admit, even after all the praise I’ve given O’Connor’s language, I didn’t really enjoy the novel. I would have enjoyed reading O’Connor’s WikiQuote page more than I enjoyed reading Wise Blood – and this is NOT true of O’Connor’s stories, which I love. It does intrigue me to think of O’Connor as a young writer feeling around (blindly??) for the tools she will use to perfect her craft. This novel also confirms something that I’ve generally believed for a long time: that novels built around ideas are not often successful. Novels need to be built around characters. Novels built around characters may develop ideas as they progress – most good ones do – but the genesis should be about 70% character, 30% plot. The basics: a man goes on a journey, a stranger comes to town – which, of course, is exactly how this novel begins.
Maybe I should just stop now.