Unless she was on the subject of peacocks, Flannery O’Connor didn’t often wax lyrical about the beauties of nature, but every now and then she surprises you, as in “A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” when she describes the scenery on the family’s road trip: “The trees were full of silver-white sunlight, and the meanest of them sparkled.” It’s a lovely little sentence–not earth-shattering, but striking in its contrast to the ugliness that ensues. Those sparkling trees always makes me think of Marvell’s “Corinna’s Going A-Maying”:

Get up, sweet slug-a-bed, and see
The dew bespangling herb and tree.

We expect these things from seventeenth-century poets, not so much from Flannery O’Connor. The next sentence, however, brings us back to familiar O’Connor territory: “The children were reading comic magazines and their mother had gone back to sleep.” Oblivious, all of them, to the wonders all around.

I marvel at O’Connor’s prose every time I pick it up. Consider an exchange that you probably didn’t think twice about, between June Star and Red Sammy’s wife.

June Star said play something she could tap to so the children’s mother put in another dime and played a fast number and June Star stepped out onto the dance floor and did her tap routine.

“Ain’t she cute?” Red Sam’s wife said. “Would you like to come be my little girl?”

“No I certainly wouldn’t,” June Star said. “I wouldn’t live in a broken-down place like this for a million bucks! And she ran back to the table.

“Ain’t she cute?” the woman repeated, stretching her mouth politely.

Again, nothing earth-shattering. But that first clumsy, tumbling run-on of a sentence sounds like a little girl’s bad tap dance routine. The country woman’s speech is so familiar that I’m almost sure I’ve heard somebody somewhere say exactly those words. And that phrase “stretched her mouth” in place of “smiled”–could there be a more economical way to communicate the woman’s pained restraint? All this in one of the least memorable passages in the story.

In O’Connor’s fiction, even the little throw-away lines are pitch-perfect. The meanest of them sparkle.

What sentences struck you as you read “A Good Man Is Hard to Find”?

Next up in the Flannery O’Connor Summer Reading Club. We’ll start “The Life You Save May Be Your Own” on Monday, June 11. The working title for this story was “The World Is Almost Rotten.” Here’s something you might ponder in your heart as you read the story of Mr. Shiftlet and the Lucynell Craters. O’Connor wrote, “I can fancy a character like the Misfit being redeemable, but a character like Mr. Shiftlet as being unredeemable.” In another letter she wrote that Mr. Shiftlet is “of the Devil because nothing in him resists the Devil.” What do you reckon is so bad about Mr. Shiftlet? (That’s a rhetorical question; save your answers for next week).

  • Loren Warnemuende
    2:29 AM, 9 June 2012

    I was struck by a description in that same paragraph that spoke of the trees: “the blue granite” and “the brilliant red clay banks slightly streaked with purple,” and the “crops that made rows of green lace-work on the ground.” I wanted to see it–I could see it–and there were those kids with their noses in comic books, as much absorbed with that as kids today are with smart phones. Of course, I used to read all the time on road trips. I wonder how much I missed?
    There was also the interaction between the grandmother and the baby that hit me as odd. It wraps up with “Occasionally he gave her a faraway smile.” I wondered if the grandmother couldn’t connect even with an infant, or if something was wrong with the child, because every baby I’ve ever made faces at and played with bursts into huge grins and giggles.

  • Jen Rose
    12:29 AM, 11 June 2012

    Funny… I never really noticed the descriptions of the trees either. Maybe all that beauty was overshadowed by the violence, or maybe I was pressing through like a kid with a comic book. O’Connor isn’t so much a prose stylist as a story teller to me. I get too caught up in the plot. But now I want to read it again and pay attention to those things.
    What I did notice (and probably missed the first time or two I read it) was how marvelous the whole scene at The Tower was written. The descriptions of Red Sam and his wife, the dialogue, and the setting of the building and everything around… so familiar I felt like I was there. Reminds me of plenty of trips through rural towns and Southern back roads. And I laughed out loud at the tap dance scene. “stretched her mouth”  = brilliant.

  • yankeegospelgirl
    1:49 AM, 11 June 2012

    Yes, that’s the thing about O’Connor. I may not ENJOY her stories, but I recognize a gifted writer when I see one. There’s a relentless power in her writing—even, measured, steely.

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