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Flannery O’Connor: Wise Blood
This novel is the story of Hazel Motes, a twenty-two year old man just returned to Tennessee after four years in the army. O’Connor, in the introduction to the second edition, described the novel as a comic novel about a Christian malgré lui, and as such, very serious, for all comic novels that are any good must be about matters of life and death. Motes had been religious before joining the army – his grandfather had been a preacher – but now is determined to save people from religious salvation and preachers. He travels to the town of Taulkinham where he meets Enoch Emory, a street vendor, who had been abandoned by his father, and a blind preacher, Asa Hawks, and Hawks’ daughter, Sabbath Lily. While Hawks is preaching, Motes announces his Church of Truth Without Jesus Christ Crucified. Motes learns that Hawks had promised to an audience to blind himself but did not and is, in fact, not blind.
Motes gets a disciple while preaching, but the disciple is a con man called Hoover Shoats, who soon takes Motes’ church from him and replaces Motes with another con man, Solace Layfield. Meanwhile, while Motes and the not so innocent Sabbath Lily are having a sexual liaison, Emory has determined that a mummy he has seen in a museum is the new Jesus and he steals it, also stealing a gorilla costume from a man wearing it. However, Motes destroys the mummy, smashing it against a wall and then goes after Layfield. When his car is smashed and he has to walk back to Taulkinham, he gets his moment of redemption and blinds himself and wraps himself in barbed wire.
This is not a pretty story. The characters range from the degenerate to the borderline insane, grotesque in other words. But O’Connor, using much exaggeration – a technique she said was essential – has effectively offered us a choice between the materialistic and the self-denying spiritual, even if the way she presents them makes neither of them attractive. But her humour, albeit dark, and her great skill at portraying these grotesques make this one of the most important twentieth century novels. Sadly, some of her successors picked up only on the grotesque, failing to see the underlying spirituality and the choice offered us.
First published 1952 by Harcourt