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Discharged from his service during World War II, Hazel Motes returns home to Tennessee in his early twenties, his childhood doubts over salvation, sin and his faith further shattered by the war, to the point he identifies himself an atheist, or anti-religion. A chance meeting in the city with a blind preacher, Asa Hawks, and his daughter Sabbath, exacerbates Motes’ detestation of the Church, and he vows to form his own ministry, The Church Without Christ, and he delivers impassioned sermons from the hood of his dilapidated car. All the while, a teenage boy, Enoch Emery, follows Motes on his blasphemous path, compelled by the ‘wise blood’ that runs in his veins, infatuated with the idea of The Church Without Christ.

wise-blood2Wise Blood is Flannery O’Connor’s first novel. Along with her second, The Violent Bear It Away (a dark and superbly challenging book) and several short story collections, it represents a small but powerful collection of writings of a woman who died tragically young, with an imagination so powerfully vivid she was willing to examine and dissect the ruminations of man’s relationship with God.

I preach there are all kinds of truth, your truth and somebody else’s, but behind all of them, there’s only one truth and that is that there is no truth… No truth behind all truths is what I and this church preach! 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. Where is there a place for you to be? No place… In yourself right now is all the place you’ve got.

As to be expected with O’Connor’s work, there are the powerful themes of religion and faith, there are several flawed but deeply fascinating characters, and there are dark, violent, macabare twists and turns. Wise Blood is a simple tale, but O’Connor introduces us to several ignition points and has them dance dangerously close to one another. Motes alternates between an anxious, confused young man and a bitter, violent wretch, cast from the shadow of his preacher grandfather, and as the story progresses we discover Motes cannot completely reject God. False prophets and phoney preachers and corrupted teenage girls are ultimately too much for him to handle. His crisis of faith descent into religious fanaticism and while sad and at times, horrifying, there is black humour throughout. The scene where Enoch stabs a man in order to steal his gorilla suit is deliriously freakish, and just one of many intimate pieces of life and characters that O’Connor exposes to us in this strange city. “Her name was Maude and she drank whisky all day from a fruit jar under the counter.” 

“Do you think, Mr. Motes,” his landlady asked hoarsely, “that when you’re dead you’re blind?”
“I hope so,” he said after a minute.
“Why?” she asked, staring at him.
After a while he said, “If there’s no bottom in your eyes, they hold more.”

At times the narrative doesn’t flow, which I attribute to the fact that several of the scenes were originally released as individual, stand alone stories, but it doesn’t take away from the overall feeling I took from the book. O’Connor is a giant of southern gothic literature, and her stories never fail to shake me. Wise Blood is no different.

Francis Marion Tarwater’s uncle had been dead for only half a day when the boy got too drunk to finish digging his grave and a Negro named Buford Munson, who had come to get a jug filled, had to finish it and drag the body from the breakfast table where it was still sitting and bury it in a decent and Christian way, with the sign of its Savior at the head of the grave and enough dirt on top to keep the dogs from digging it up.

I knew little of Flannery O’Connor and her work prior to reading The Violent Bear It Away. O’Connor was a female, Roman Catholic author born in 1925 and raised in southern USA. I was shocked to see she had died at the age of 39 after battling lupus, having written just two novels along with a handful of short stories and other works. This novel appeared to centre on a conflict between devout religion and destiny and the secular, focusing very much on O’Connor’s own religious beliefs, and before starting the novel I was a little perplexed as to why I had picked this book, out of all potential candidates, as my next read.

flannery o'connor

Initially, I think I picked this book out because the protagonist, Francis Marion Tarwater, is a teenager and I have been working on an idea which features a young male protagonist. She has also been described as a Southern Gothic writer, much like my favoured author Cormac McCarthy; that was as far as my reasoning went for reading this book. I began to question my choice; while The Violent Bear It Away seemed to be well received and regarded highly in most literary circles, so far it wasn’t sounding like a book I’d typically go for. Anyway, I digress. I did end up reading the book and I was rewarded by a piece of work that clouded my senses with the passion and fury within.

There is a power within O’Connor’s writing. It is forceful and brash, uncomfortably so at times. This novel is dark, it’s heavy and unsettling and the inner demons that tear at these characters can be difficult to digest. There is some humour and satirical elements as you might expect from such conflicting world views and O’Connor clearly observes passion and compassion and the dark voices that threaten to consume her characters whole.

The introduction itself (the quote at the top of the page is the novel’s excellent first sentence) is wonderful and immediately reminded me of Cormac McCarthy’s Southern stylings, instantly making an impression on you and the sort of story you’re in for. We are introduced to the young boy Tarwater, just a teenager, who sits at the breakfast table with his great-uncle whom has just there died. Abducted at a young age by the devout, self proclaimed prophet, his great-uncle is a booming, fanatically religious figure who teaches Tarwater the values of redemption and God and the significance of achieving salvation, with his goal to have the boy replace him and become a prophet in his wake.

book cover

But upon being freed of the shackles of his great-uncle, following in his footsteps is hard to do. Tarwater is being allowed to think for himself, possibly for the first time in his life, and his natural rebellious instinct is to go against everything his late great-uncle strived so hard to instill within him.

The voice was loud and strange and disagreeable

Tarwater becomes aware of a second version of himself; perhaps an internal monologue of his own thoughts, or even a manifestation of the devil, tempting him away from his destiny. Either way, this second voice plagues and fills the young boy with doubts throughout the novel.

Tarwater’s monumental struggle is between the path of a prophet that his great-uncle set out for him, and to eventually baptise the retarded son of Tarwater’s uncle, and old Tarwater’s nephew, Rayber. Rayber is a schoolteacher and represents the opposite of the boy and the great-uncles sacred views. It is the conflict between the boy Tarwater and his uncle Rayber that forms the main narrative with The Violent Bear It Away, with the lure of a more modern, rational approach to life that Rayber is so keen to impress on him.

He knew that he was the stuff of which fanatics and madmen are made and that he had turned his destiny as if with his bare will. He kept himself upright on a very narrow line between madness and emptiness and when the time came for him to lose his balance he intended to lurch toward emptiness and fall on the side of his choice. Rayber’s philosphy on his life and the taint that Old Tarwater left on him as a young boy.

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And such is the conflict, that the reader is not necessarily encouraged to take sides. Perhaps O’Connor was trying to define some middle ground between the devout and the secular, but as no character personifies this middle ground, it is left for the two opposites, the extremes of their kind, to battle against each other. If anything, it would seem that the destiny Tarwater’s great uncle lays forth for him to follow is too strong, whereas Rayber struggles to rationalise the stubborn scowling entity that is this young boy.

There are long stretches of recalled memories and deep descriptions of character, and after every setback or victory O’Connor deconstructs and builds them up again, and we witness and feel it all. As Tarwater’s journey progresses there is an impending sense that his destiny is unavoidable, as we realise his uncle’s actions have set him on his way and there is no turning back. In the final act he falls to temptation, taking part in a baptism-murder, and he is redeemed as he sets the forest to flames.

He felt his hunger no longer as a pain but as a tide. He felt it rising in himself through time and darkness, rising through the centuries, and he knew that it rose in a line of men whose lives were chosen to sustain it, who would wander in the world, strangers from that violent country where the silence is never broken except to shout the truth. He felt it building from the blood of Abel to his own, rising and spreading in the night, a red-gold tree of fire ascended as if it would consume the darkness in one tremendous burst of flame. The boy’s breath went out to meet it. He knew that this was the fire that had encircled Daniel, that had raised Elijah from the earth, that had spoken to Moses and would in the instant speak to him. He threw himself to the ground and with his face against the dirt of the grave, he heard the command. GO WARN THE CHILDREN OF GOD OF THE TERRIBLE SPEED OF MERCY. The words were as silent as seed opening one at a time in his blood. Tarwater’s awakening and redemption, accepting his path as a prophet as his great-uncle intended.

The Violent Bear It Away is a superbly rich novel, written by a talented author in O’Connor who unfortunately taken far too young. Her writing is unapologetically robust and the themes she takes on, much after her own heart and beliefs, ask intimidating questions on existentialism and belief and individuality within the human condition.