Wise Blood

I bought this slim novel in the late summer of 2014 whilst touring Andalusia Farm with my pal Jim. Not that Jim; this Jim. We went to Milledgeville to see the Harllee Branch power plant, as part of a writing project I was working on, and wound up spending a good chunk of the day hanging around town, where we played tourists, checking out the old governor's mansion, the old capitol, Central State Hospital, the city cemetery (where Flannery O'Connor is buried), and, just before we left town, Andalusia Farm. You're supposed to just wander around the farm on your own account but we managed to strongarm a young woman working there into giving us a miniature tour, all the while pelting her with nosey questions about Harllee Branch. We must have both felt a bit guilty and uncultured, because we both bought something from the gift shop on the way out. So for a year and a half this book sat in the slag pile next to my bed, silently mocking me. I've read very little Flannery in my life — maybe a short story or two at the most. I don't know why this is, though I figure it's because they neglected to assign me any in high school or college. As little attention as I paid to school, I did find quite a few of the writers I love in English class. Whatever the cause, now that I've got some of her work in my brain, I'm glad.

Let me say up front that Wise Blood is a great book. It's very dark, very funny, and built out of fantastically precise slabs of language. O'Connor has a facility with dialect every bit as thrilling as that of Mark Twain. In both cases the accents they capture are ones I've heard in my own family, so I can vouch for their verisimilitude (though I'm curious how they read to someone who isn't familiar with them).

I'm not going to give a play by play of Wise Blood. It was published 64 years ago and this isn't Cliff Notes. But let's talk about darkness, shall we? My wife and I have this running argument about whether Bad Santa is a dark film. I say it's not; she says she won't watch it because it's so depressing. I forgive you at this point if you wonder whether I was struck upon the head with an iron when I was a baby. (I was, actually!) But bear with me. Billie Bob Thornton's Willie is probably the most morally and emotionally stunted character you'll ever see outside of an alley. He can't see any further than the bottle in front of his face, and other people are nothing more to him than objects for his lust, targets for his criminality, or obstacles to the first two. Good Christmas movie, no? He winds up inadvertently paired with an unnamed child who, for reasons of mental acuity, also lives in a world that doesn't extend much farther than his fingertips. They seem a ghastly twosome, but their solipsistic worlds intersect. The kid's ability to absorb the tidal wave of foul abuse Willie dishes out without incurring any discernible dents on his featureless psyche turns out to be the key to Willie's extremely unlikely redemption. Is it dark? Well sure — the bottom that Willie reaches is so deep that there are tube worms. Yet miraculously he finds his way back. George Bailey's redemption in It's a Wonderful Life is like a trinket from a box of Cracker Jack by comparison.

Wise Blood is far darker than Bad Santa.

Hazel Motes, the self-flagellating anti-preacher at the center of Wise Blood starts out low and sinks over the course of the entire novel. There's no redemption for him. O'Connor being a devout Christian herself, she may have meant for Wise Blood to serve as a cautionary tale of what happens when one fights against the inevitability of faith, but I imagine she was smarter than that. I found plenty of room for interpretation in this book at any rate, and Motes struck me as an American Gregor Samsa, alienated by whatever warped religious inheritance he carries around with him. I suspect O'Connor knew a thing or two about warped religion. It's like pollen down here. To me, Wise Blood is pitch black — the tale of a man with no options and nothing to do but sink into the quicksand. Grim stuff, but again, it is also hilarious, and for myself anyway, humor is as good a bulwark against death and the void as anything. It won't even hold anything off, but at least you'll be laughing when the reaper arrives.

About halfway through I happened to discover that John Huston made a film adaptation of Wise Blood in 1979 starring Brad Dourif, Harry Dean Stanton, and Ned Beatty. Of course, I must see this. I'm not a huge Huston fan, but I love Brad Dourif, and this is one of his first roles. Ned Beatty is always great, and Stanton is an institution. I don't know how I managed to get so far in the world without realizing this was out there. Same as getting so far without reading the source material I guess. In short, I have always been, and remain, an uncouth lout. But slightly less so today.