January 22, 2017

In college I read The Bear, a novella in William Faulkner’s Go Down, Moses. It’s not an exaggeration to say that that short work completely changed the way I approached reading and writing. I have always considered it one of the most influential works of literature in my life. But in the 25 years since then, I’ve only read two more works by Faulkner, The Sound and the Fury and As I Lay Dying. That’s because Faulkner is hard—really, really hard. I fought The Sound and the Fury to a draw, I think, though it’s mostly just a blur now. I read As I Lay Dying twice, back-to-back, because you pretty much have to after that ending. It was still hard the second time around. So even though Faulkner is brilliant, and he changed my life, I can’t say I’ve ever been a huge fan.

Then a couple of months ago, I read my first Michael McDowell novel, The Elementals, which is basically what William Faulkner would have written if he’d decided to write a haunted house story for the masses. It’s categorized as horror, but to me it read like a well-written straightforward Gothic psychological fiction. I thought: I wish there was someone who wrote books halfway between Faulkner and this guy. I could really be a fan of that.

Well, I do believe I’ve found her. Finally, after decades of having Flannery O’Connor recommended to me, I picked her up. I just finished The Violent Bear It Away, and I’m blown away. This is an absorbing, dark, disturbing story stocked with more brilliant nuggets of insight than I could keep track of. My first assessment is that the book is about the insidious disease of fundamentalism and how it opens one up to be manipulated, stripped of rationality and dignity, and ultimately destroyed. It’s about how dogmatic certainty, especially when coupled with a messianic message, can warp the mind and spread its seeds into new hosts who wither inside and unwittingly act as vectors themselves.

The story follows a teenage boy who’s at the center of an apocalyptic family struggle. His great uncle believes that he (the great uncle) is a prophet destined to steal the children who are born to his relatives and turn them into little versions of himself. The boy’s uncle, whom the prophet calls “Schoolteacher,” has tried to escape the steely grip of the older man’s megalomaniacal fundamentalism by turning to rationality. The story unfolds as a death match between the insanity of the old man’s overflowing faith as embodied in the boy and the logic-based, but hollow, normalcy of the Schoolteacher. Everyone suffers.

This is in no way, shape, or form a happy book, but it hooked me early, and I stayed hooked. It’s powerful in some fundamental and hard-to-express way—probably because it deals with so many fundamental and hard-to-express themes. The best thing it did for me was to help me understand the political mess we’ve gotten ourselves into as a society. When so many of our citizens are committed to fundamentalist worldviews, we’re bound to be in deep shit.

So, even though the book was brutal, I’m happy. After all these years, I found my Faulkner substitute—though that’s a diminishing way of saying what I really mean to say: that Flannery O’Connor is as good as everyone always says she is. She is as Southern Gothic as Faulkner, and I’m sure she’s as deep, but she’s also just that much more accessible that reading her work doesn’t feel like work. I’m so glad I finally gave her a try. Now for more…