Sunday, October 18, 2009

Wise Blood by Flannery O'Connor

"Where you came 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."
I was introduced to Flannery O'Connor's Wise Blood in college for a course called American Humor. The professor, who was as memorable as the books he chose, had thin grey hair that hung pin straight around a smiling round face punctuated by a large mole and thick lips. It was impossible to take your eyes off of him in class. Those books are still some of my favorites today. As a bonus, he also introduced my friends and I to the word "incongruous" which we used with zeal throughout the semester.

Wise Blood stuck with me throughout the years, and recently, a friend inspired me to go back. The book follows Hazel Motes, a man scarred by his fire and brimstone upbringing--rejecting a cruel, stalking Jesus, but terrified to do so just the same. Motes "saw Jesus move from tree to tree in the back of his mind, a wild ragged figure motioning him to turn around and come off into the dark where he was not sure of his footing, where he might be walking on the water and not know it and then suddenly know it and drown." After four years in the service, he moves to the city to throw God and sin behind him, in a jolyless embrace of sex and the Church Without Christ. His mission leads him to a cast a characters, all on their own missions of some sort of faith including a lost and unlovable young man named Enoch Emery, Asa Hawks the un-blind preacher, his bastard daughter Sabbath Lily, and the opportunistic huckster Hoover Shoats who sets up competition.

In a forward written by O'Connor, she states that the book is about integrity--the integrity of Hazel's refusal to shake his shadowy saviour. But, it seems to also be a book about our basic instincts. The many animals in Wise Blood are caged and abused, base creatures cut off from nature and any way to act instinctually. Human needs, basic needs, are held in low, sinful regard. Enoch Emery and Hazel are driven to animalistic actions that free them both. In fact, true happiness only comes--if but for a moment--to Enoch after he dons a gorilla suit.

Wise Blood is a dark comedy, although its so easy to get caught up in Hazel's dark world its easy to forget. Thankfully, Enoch and Sabbath are there with earnest, but crazed thoughts to bring us back into a satirical state of mind. O'Connor's struggle between old time religion and contemporary culture, is kind to neither, but it is a fine reminder that we cannot deny who and what we are. We always rear our true selves in the end.

If, after Wise Blood, you're still in the mood for some old time religion, but need a bit more levity--watch Night of the Hunter. Robert Mitchem rocks as the murderous, knuckle tattooed preacher Harry Powell (he's creepy and humorous).

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