Wise Blood by Flannery O’Connor

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Title: Wise Blood
Author: Flannery O’Connor
Publisher: Faber & Faber
Release Date: 1952
Rating: 5/5

Flannery O’Connor died at the age of 39 after publishing only two novels and 32 short stories. Wise Blood is the first of those novels and it’s Southern Gothic at its finest. What a shame she didn’t have more time.

“I preach the Church without Christ”…” where the lame don’t walk, the blind don’t see, and the dead stay dead!”

Wise Blood is a strange little book, but it has everything a Southern Gothic story needs; violence, religious fanatisism and grotesque characters. It’s grim, bleak and often absurdly funny. Simultaneously depressing and hilarious, a rare feat. Unlike most books I’ve read in this genre, I find that the characters in Wise Blood have little to no redemptive features. It seems that they’re not supposed to be realistic characters, but more a study in the way characters can work in fiction. That doesn’t make for a less interesting and entertaining read.

We have Hazel Motes, a war vet waging his own private war against a “blind” preacher with a degenerate daughter. He’s given up on the Christian truth and decides to start his own church, The Church Without Christ, to preach the opposite. In his anti-religion (and anti-sin, anti-soul, anti-redemption) campaign, he ends up engulfed by religion and images of Christ. His attempts to reject religion seem to have the opposite effect. He’s certain a new Jesus will emerge and that he is a prophet. He’s unsympathetic and unkind, but has lines that almost rival Joseph Heller in absurdity. I chuckled more than once.

Then there’s Enoch Emory, an 18-year-old zoo-keeper who hates animals, was thrown out of his house, has no friends and is obsessed by a mummified corpse in the local museum. He’s a despicable character too, but it’s hard not to be interested in someone who only does what his wise blood tells him, even if that is attempting to force about the Second Coming of Christ or putting on a gorilla costume. Arguably, Cormac McCarthy has based a few characters on Enoch.

“Faith is what someone knows to be true, whether they believe it or not.”

Within a very short space of time, O’Connor deals with some pretty big issues; faith, heresy, redemption (maybe not so much) and modernity – what the hell does it all mean? She does it with a steady hand and a tongue in her cheek. The narrative, like the characters, is disconnected. The language is sharp and on point, with dialogue written in the vernacular – something I just can’t get enoug of. I’m sure someone could show a straight line from Faulkner to O’Connor to McCarthy. The latter is obviously heavily influenced by the previous two. I’m a big fan of McCarthy, but I have a feeling O’Connor may just be his equal, if not more than that.

This is why I love to read.

“Where you come from is gone, where you thought you were going to never was there, and where you are is no good unless you can get away from it”

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