Sunday, July 10, 2011

Two new books feature Flannery O'Connor's life and work

Flannery O'Connor, the mystic of Milledgeville, Georgia, has been tending her flocks of peacocks elsewhere since 1964, when she died of lupus. Her fictions -- novels and stories that have inspired a generation of gothic tales and Southern mythologies -- remain uniquely her own, although she herself saw nothing special in her rural life. "Lives spent between the house and the chicken yard do not make exciting copy," she said of herself.

Her brief life and unassuming character make O'Connor a subject of continuing fascination for many readers, an interest reminiscent of that in Harper Lee, another icon of Southern literature, who continues to live quietly in her home town of Monroeville, Alabama.

O'Connor's life and work features in two new books: Ann Napolitano's A Good Hard Look (Penguin Books), just released, is a fictional recreation of O'Connor's final years in Milledgeville. Later this year, Fantagraphics Books will be publishing a first collection of O'Connor's youthful cartoons she drew for her high school and college publications in the early 1940s.

Flannery O’Connor: The Cartoons is the first compilation of her graphic work in pen-and-ink and linoleum cuts. Before her writing career the young student aspired to be a cartoonist, and she developed a visually bold and eye-catching style. The results are witty and acid comments on campus life and American culture that show O'Connor developing her own acerbic point-of-view.

'Do you have any books the faculty doesn't particularly recommend?'

She was aware early that her opinions might be too strong for some: for an audience resistant to your views, O’Connor once wrote, “draw large and startling figures” -- a comment that can just as easily apply to her characters in her novels Wise Blood and The Violent Bear It Away.

She herself disliked it when reviewers called her fiction mean or cynical, though her stories often involved transformations through events that are painful and violent. "When I see these stories described as horror stories I am always amused because the reviewer always has hold of the wrong horror," she commented after the publication of her collection A Good Man is Hard to Find in 1955. Her fractious, deceptively simple characters come to change by their own beliefs, a hallmark of the author's strong feelings towards her own Catholic faith; her stories are allegories about man's divinity, not lessons about about church doctrine.

Ann Napolitano's A Good Hard Look places the author in the center of a story populated with a cast of characters that struggle with their own very human problems, from uncertain marriages to the meddlings of the neighborhood busybody. Unlike O'Connor's outsized and almost freakish misfits, the Milledgeville folks make do with what they've got: mainly, themselves and the rituals of life in a small Georgia town.

O'Connor has her own doubts and insecurities and family issues: the presence of her hard-headed mother Regina gives the author a sense of balance as her health worsens and she begins to wonder if it was a terrible mistake “centering her life on a string of words typed on a page.”

Escape from her own fate becomes a theme in the book. Finding a soul-mate in Melvin, who is teaching her to drive, O'Connor thinks of “flashing down the road with a man sitting next to her, that she was someone else, living a normal, contented life.” The choices of a normal life are in marked contrast to O'Connor's fictional creations -- the "large and startling figures" that she featured in her cartoons and that came to life in her stories.

The author was 39 when she died. Napolitano resists the temptation to make O'Connor's life and early death into one of the writer's own fictions -- the folks in Milledgeville are neighbors, after all, not gothic figures. A Good Hard Look is a fan's story and a good, inventive tale, one that O'Connor herself might take prickly pride in reading.

Ann Napolitano

Ann Napolitano will be in Decatur, GA on Tuesday July 12th at the First Baptist Church for a discussion and signing of A Good Hard Look. For more information about the event, which begins at 7 p.m., visit The Georgia Center for the Book website.

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