I had never heard of Flannery O’Connor before until I read another author’s recommended list, that of Rita Leganski. Seeing that this was a book of short stories, one of my favourite storytelling styles, I sought it out. I always loved the darkness of Roald Dahl and the human observation of W.S. Maugham and short stories are easy to pick up and put down, a quick way to introduce yourself to a new author and dip into a new world whilst simultaneously dipping a biscuit into your tea. Lovely.
Modern author Lauren Groff wrote the excellent introduction in the edition I read and I am glad that I read it before starting the stories as it gave a context for them as well as an explanation for the use by the author of the “N word”, the derogatory word used to degrade African Americans which is peppered in the text quite liberally. I will talk about this a bit later also in context in the discussion of the stories as it needs addressing.
One thing that Lauren Groff is right about is that these stories are truly American. They are also very much of their time, a bygone American era. O’Connor was writing in the 1950s/early 1960s and you get a sense of a post-war USA, just starting to reach for the technicolour glory of the 1960s and 70s but still requiring a bit of spit and polish before getting there.
I have to say that I was unsure about them when I first started reading them. It wasn’t that O’Connor’s writing wasn’t good or that the stories were rubbish. They were reasonably enjoyable to read with the twists and surprises that you would normally associate with a well-written short story but I took a while to warm up to her.
The first story is the one that names the collection and sets the tone for the rest when a family departs on an excursion, but at the grandmother’s insistence take a wrong turn and as a result of her dodgy memory, find themselves in quite a predicament. Unfortunately, it ends very badly indeed. O’Connor presents a discordant family set up where irritations and tensions lie and has the reader believing that this will be what the story is about: a fractious trip with minor explosions of temper culminating in a big drama but it is much darker than that – an unforeseen twist, the characteristic of a great short story.
From the opening story, the use of the “N Word” is present and there is no doubt, that for a modern reader, its presence is disconcerting. Bizarrely, it is not used in an inflammatory sense but as a way for the white people to describe those of a different colour, for the most part. There is no doubt that in certain stories, the divide between white European and African American is pronounced but there is no racial violence contained in these stories; tension maybe but there is that between white people too, of different stations and positions. However, it is unsettling to read a book which uses it so frequently and casually so this is definitely something to bear in mind when approaching her fiction.
I said that it took me a while to warm to her and I am not really sure of why this is; however, by the time I reached the end of the book, I had found my reading rhythm and thoroughly enjoyed three distinct stories in the latter pages of the collection.
The first of these, A Circle in the Fire tells of a woman who is visited by the son of an old worker who has been waxing lyrical to his friends about her farm and has brought them along to see what he has been talking about. She is hospitable to them at first but it is soon obvious that they are reluctant to leave, having brought a suitcase full of provisions and intent on disregarding her instructions about where they can go and what they can do on her property.
What is good about this story is that there is a growing sense of the ominous as the boys do not depart and grow more and more bold in their actions the longer that they stay. There is also a sense of helplessness in how to deal with them. Mild exhortions do nothing to deter them and a stricter approach merely makes them more stubborn. The rising sense of tension is created masterfully by O’Connor and as a reader, you know that it is leading you to something potentially damaging and lawless.
Good Country People is about a mother and her daughter who are visited by a door-to-door Bible salesman, a vestige of a bygone era indeed. Joy, the daughter, is extremely intelligent, having completed numerous qualifications, the most recent being a PhD. The mother and daughter relationship is not harmonious and there is a sense that Joy likes to grate on her mother, finding her maternal concerns to be irritating. For instance, Joy has legitimately changed her name to Hulga to match her less than perfect frame, Joy having had her leg shot off in a hunting accident and wearing a prosthetic limb as a result.
The Bible salesman manages to persuade Joy to meet him for a picnic and there is no doubt that Joy is motivated to meet him with a view to using him for sexual exploration. However, things do not go as planned and Joy soon realises that the Bible salesman may not be as godly or worthy as the books he touts and that his motivation for meeting her is not the prize of her intimacy with him.
Finally, the book that ends the collection, The Displaced Person, is one that describes immigrants from Europe after the war, in this case, a Polish person, being brought over to the States through the kind ministrations of the Church to work the land of American farmers and begin a new life with purpose.
In this case, it is a widow, Mrs McIntyre who already has black workers and Mr and Mrs Shortley as live-in workers, who is swayed to have the Pole and his family out of some altruistic duty. There may also be the attraction of more labour for little money and the fact that having inherited the land from her dead husband, there was no money remaining to run it.
The Pole, Guizac, comes to work and things are great for a bit as he works extremely hard and efficiently, much to the annoyance of the other workers but very much to Mrs McIntyre’s approval. When the Pole proposes that one of the black workers become betrothed to his cousin, a young woman who is still in Europe and impoverished, Mrs McIntyre is horrified that such a thing could be suggested and tries to explain this to Guizac. Again, this stance reflects the time in which the book is set as well as the attitudes of the rural southern States.
From this moment, the relationship between them has been soured and it is only a matter of time before Guizac will have to go, Mrs McIntyre not able to reconcile his need to get his cousin to a better life by any means possible with the fact that he could perceive a white girl marrying a black worker as acceptable.
A resolution is found which is horrific and tragic and causes the end of Mrs McIntyre’s farm as well.
What I got from Flannery O’Connor is that she is a keen observer of human behaviour and the triggers that can cause us to act a certain way, usually to our detriment. She is also good at putting her characters into situations where their life is encroached upon, sometimes stealthily, sometimes with awareness that it is happening and often times without a clear way of how to deal with it. Their consciousness that things are not going their way and that their control is slipping away in the stories mentioned makes them particularly unsettling, making a tightening in your gut as you realise that things are probably going to end badly.
They are dark, with humour, just this side of disturbing and like Dahl, perfectly executed short stories, strong in character and plot.
I will definitely seek out more of her work in the future although unfortunately, she lived a very short life, her passing away at just 39 so in terms of Flannery O’Connor back catalogue, there is not much to peruse.
Parts of this review were originally published on Reedsy Discovery.