Your basic Dwarf+Giant Overview is a comprehensive survey of an author or series. It is not an in-depth analysis, nor is it a summary. Think of it as a buying or reading guide, telling you what’s out there, what’s essential, what to avoid and so forth.
“You shall know the truth and the truth shall make you odd.” -Mary Flannery O’Connor
Flannery O’Connor had a short life and wrote from a dark place. Dead at thirty-nine she was gone before the publication of her final short story collection, and her legacy of influence was almost exclusively posthumous. A devout Catholic from the South who loved birds (especially peacocks) and who suffered terribly due to poor health caused by genetic systemic lupus (which would kill her in 1964), O’Connor is well-loved and remembered today due to the powerful nature of her writing and her invaluable contribution to the style of American literature known as Southern Gothic.
I was first introduced to O’Connor in my freshman high school English class when we read “A Good Man is Hard to Find” the first story in the short story collection by the same name. I can still recall the ominous feeling that resonates through the story, a grim parable about the brutal murder of a family by an escaped convict known only as “The Misfit”. I’d never read anything like it. “A Good Man is Hard to Find” along with “The Life You Save May Be Your Own” remain two of my favorite short stories ever. There’s something magical about her language and how she creates beauty in the grotesque that’s haunting, yet comforting. I’ve since read everything she’s written and through her writing became an enthusiast of the Southern Gothic style.
Wise Blood: Published in 1952, Wise Blood is a beautifully written story full of broken and bizarre characters. Rife with themes of sin and salvation, it features a holy mummified dwarf and a false prophet in a gorilla suit. At times humorous and at times horrifying, Wise Blood established O’Connor as a master of prose. It’s not an easy or even pleasant to read at times but very satisfying and highly recommended.
A Good Man is Hard to Find : If you’re new to O’Connor, this is a good place to start. Published in 1955, A Good Man is Hard to Find features some of her most famous short stories and is her most widely read collection. This is the collection that houses her best stories, the self titled “A Good Man is Hard to Find”, “The Life You Save May Be Your Own” and “The River”. These are powerful, dark stories of faith, lost and found, heartache and salvation.
The Violent Bear it Away: Published in 1960, The Violent Bear it Away is the story of the dysfunctional Tarwater family, a clan of religious prophets and murderous alcoholics. The story is pretty grim at times but beautifully written and definitely compelling. An ideal example of the Southern Gothic style in all it’s grotesque glory.
Everything That Rises Must Converge: Published posthumously in 1965, Everything That Rises Must Converge, is O’Connor’s second short story collection, featuring classics such as “A View of The Woods” and my favorite “Parker’s Back”, a short story that features a large tattoo of the Byzantine Christ, the Pantocrator. It’s definitely one of the best uses of tattoos in fiction since Ray Bradbury’s Illustrated Man.
The Complete Short Stories: Another posthumous collection and winner of the 1972 US National Book Award for Fiction, this collection includes everything from A Good Man is Hard to Find and Everything That Rises Must Converge as well as a handful of previously unavailable stories such as “The Geranium” which Flannery wrote four different versions of and “The Heart of the Park”.
A Prayer Journal: Between 1946-1947, unsatisfied with the traditional Catholic prayers she had been taught her whole life, O’Connor kept a composition notebook which served as her spiritual journal and in which she recorded her own personal conversations with God. She used this journal as a conduit for her faith and as a series of meditations in which she expanded her consciousness, creativity and thus her craft. A handsome, slim volume which is presented in two parts, the second part being the facsimile of her original journal. Seeing it written in her elegant penmanship furthers the feeling of intimacy, sadness and peace that permeate this lovely little book.
The Habit of Being: Letters of Flannery O’Connor: Writing letters is a lost art, and O’Connor wrote a lot of letters. Letters to publishers, friends, priests and strangers. Serious letters, funny letters and heartbreaking letters… so many letters! This is a big book and as her letters progress so does O’Connor’s illness. In her letters it became apparent to me that O’Connor’s life was not always centered on her stories and novels and that she focused a lot of her energy on her family and friends, the recipients of these letters. After I finished this collection, I was left with the the curious feeling that I’d just read the letters of a dead woman who might not have wanted me to see them. It was also a bit unsettling to read only one half of a correspondence.
Mystery and Manners: Occasional Prose: Another gem published after O’Connor’s death, which was compiled by two of her closest friends, Mystery and Manners is a straight forward collection of essays mostly (but not completely) about the mystery and craft of writing. My favorites in the collection are the first entry “The King of All Birds” a sort of love song to O’Connor’s muster of pet peacocks and the last entry ’A Memoir of Mary Ann” a bittersweet narrative about her literary collaboration with an order of nuns who care for children afflicted with cancer.
FURTHER RECOMMENDED READING
Provinces of Night and I Hate to See That Evening Sun Go Down: Collected Stories by William Gay:
I recently discovered William Gay on the Staff Picks table of the Last Bookstore and was blown away. I’ve yet to read another contemporary writer who carries the torch of O’Connor so beautifully. Gay’s short story “The Paper Hanger” could have easily been included in A Good Man is Hard to Find. If you’ve exhausted your library of O’Connor books I highly recommend picking up a William Gay title.
We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson: Anything by Shirley Jackson is pretty terrific but this novella stands alone as one of her best and definitely captures the spirit of the Southern gothic style, even though the story is set in New England. You might also consider (re)reading The Lottery or The Haunting of Hill House.
And the Ass Saw the Angel by Nick Cave: Australian musician Nick Cave drags the corpse of William Faulkner through a swampland of debauchery in this epic novel. The story of the mental breakdown of an outcast and an exploration of Man’s inhumanity to man. A modern classic which reads like a song from my favorite Bad Seeds record, Murder Ballads.
The Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers: A sad, strange and perfect story set in a small Southern town in Georgia, I first read this book around the same time I read A Good Man is Hard to Find and loved it so much I read it again immediately.
Tobacco Road by Erskine Caldwell: Set in rural Georgia during the depths of the Great Depression, Tobacco Road was written seven years before The Grapes of Wrath and is similar in theme but darker in content and desperation.