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Tuesday
Jul282009

1972

Winner of the Best of
the National Book Awards
The Complete Stories

By Flannery O’Connor

Original and Current Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Alice Elliott Dark writes:

Flannery O' Connor thought you couldn't separate a story from its meaning—that it was indescribable except in its own words. At first, I didn't get it. That claim was more readily apparent in music and painting—but couldn't stories be described, their themes extrapolated?

Yet I sensed there was truth in her declaration, and I eventually understood—by reading her stories. You can't really convey what happens to a reader who gives herself over to O' Connor. You can list the events in a story—they're eventful—but those bare bones don't begin to express the complex sensations, effects, and theological revelation that shake you and make you laugh when you're in them. She believes in God, and she is able to show what He is (to her) in His work. I've read her stories lots of times; she's converted me to stories as an art form, unable to be pulled apart.

Alice Elliott Dark was a National Book Awards judge in 2002.

 

Deb Caletti writes:

Although I have a greedy abundance of books in nearly every corner of my house, I keep only three or four on my desk. They’re the special few that you secretly hope will bring their magic to your work just by being nearby, same as you keep something lucky in your pocket. The Complete Stories of Flannery O’Connor is one of those books.

I fell in love with Flannery’s stories while I was in college. It was less the religious themes that got me and more the so-right voice and characters you hear breathing right in the room with you as you read. The first thing I wrote that received any sort of acclaim (in the roomiest sense of the word) was a story I wrote in her style. Several years later, through circumstances that seemed both serendipitous and fated, I was signed by Flannery’s forever literary agency, my books taken on by the man who handles her estate, now my own longtime friend and agent.

I reread the stories periodically (and, further, her delightful letters in The Habit of Being), and am continually blown away by how fresh, brilliant, and even contemporary they remain. First, those Quentin Tarantino moments—the Bible salesman who steals the girl’s artificial leg, the family shot by the side of the road by The Misfit, who apologizes to the ladies for not having a shirt on just before he does the deed—but more than that, the perfect snippets of character and the small moments of the human condition and the large life lessons so rightly set into those careful, neat lines. She captured a time and place, but also something timeless and universal.

The Complete Stories deserves accolades thick and substantial as the book itself. The work is beautiful and harsh and true and endlessly masterful. It’s unjust to even try to describe it in a few paragraphs. Impossible. So, for now, the simplest thing: genius lasts.

Deb Caletti was a National Book Award finalist for her novel, Honey, Baby, Sweetheart, and is also the author of numerous other books for young adults.


Anna Clark writes:

Thirty-one savage tales comprise Flannery O’Connor’s The Complete Stories. Nine of them appeared in 1956’s A Good Man is Hard to Find, which was a finalist for the National Book Award and was the only story collection that O’Connor published in her brief lifetime. Twelve of those in The Complete Stories had not been collected in book form before.

In language that O’Connor might have appreciated, The Complete Stories is a revelation. These are stories with dark edges and beating hearts, sharp social satire and humor, a sense for ghosts and destabilized spaces. This is no less than essential re-reading for writers and lovers of literature. Arranged chronologically, we see the path of the storyteller’s mind laid out before us. We see a mind on fire, from O’Connor’s first published tale (“The Geranium,” 1946) through the much-anthologized stories of murderous Misfits and stolen wooden legs, and on to the last pages that she mailed to her publisher shortly before her death (“Judgment Day,” 1964, which happens to be a transfiguration of “The Geranium”).

As a complete testament to O’Connor’s life work, this collection is cut as hard and as many-sided as a diamond. And yet, alongside her vaulting vision, O’Connor is unusually attentive to the physical. It has perhaps gone out of fashion for fiction writers to give so much space to the way a character rolls tobacco and hangs a cigarette on his upper lip, or a toothless woman gumming seeds during dusk on her splintered front porch. But it is through such penetrating and constant sight on the dirty fingernails of human life that O’Connor’s fiction transcends.

A passionate Catholic, O’Connor believed in the holy mystery of the Eucharist in which bread becomes Jesus Christ’s body, and wine, Christ’s blood. That is, the Eucharist is the fusing of the profane and the sacred, the communion of the physical world and the divine. O’Connor’s thirty-one stories are just such a communion.

Anna Clark is a freelance writer and the editor of Isak.  She lives in Detroit.

 

Paul Lisicky writes:

"Why you're one of my babies. You're one of my own children."

"Go back to hell where you came from, you old wart hog."

If you've read Flannery O'Connor, I can't imagine that those lines aren’t part of your imagination.

And her images. The chained monkey biting each flea "as if it were a delicacy." Mary Grace’s thumbprints over Mrs. Turpin's windpipe: "pink fish bones." The hat of Hulga's suitor!"Toast-colored with a red and white band around it...slightly too large for him."

How does she do it? Even separated from narrative, these lines and pictures bore into us. Who hasn't felt like Mary Grace when confronting a crude, entitled person? Or wished that the Mrs. Turpins of the world (and in ourselves) were capable of inner confrontation and awe.

When I teach these stories, it's hard not to be stirred by them. Sometimes they untrap lost parts of me. My students look worried: the frank, open intensity on their faces! After all, could these stories be read without some of the theology they refract and revise? Shouldn’t these engines of confrontation and grace be distrusted? Yes or no, saved or not, right or wrong: mean, murderous binaries. And yet “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” invites us to blur the boundary between self-charmed Christian woman and serial killer. The Misfit kills the grandmother, and that’s devastating, but his ache, his Job-like wail, his desperate line of questioning before he raises his gun... None of that can be diminished. And what do we do with that?

And there’s her vividness on the page, the sense of irreverence, the sense of raucous play. Tonal slipperiness—and control. Her ability to turn the most low-down things into shining things. Bravery. Some of my favorite writers—Joy Williams, Denis Johnson, Mary Gaitskill—would not be who they are without her. In truth, I'm not sure American literature post-1972 would be what it is without her.

And here she was, a girl afraid to open her mouth in workshop.

Paul Lisicky is the author of Lawnboy and Famous Builder, and his new novel, Lumina Harbor, is forthcoming.


Matthew Pitt writes:

Of the reasons to keep The Complete Stories by the bedside, one that resonates most in my mind is O’Connor’s urgency. It’s in her short fiction, where I marvel most over her prose’s alacrity, alkaline dialogue exchanges, and high-wire standoffs. So much of these are paced like her life was: alla breve. Fatherless from age 15, due to the very disease that would hinder and end her, her stories feel like matters of life and death—and yet remain deathly funny. Like the early incarnation of Hazel Motes in “The Peeler,” strolling with his neck “thrust forward as if he were trying to smell something that was always being drawn away,” I sense in O’Connor’s stories an author after truth, who knows full well she wouldn’t have long to locate it.

“I work all the time, but I cannot work fast,” O’Connor asserted in part of a letter reprinted by Robert Giroux. “No one can convince me I shouldn’t rewrite as much as I do.” Perhaps she couldn’t work fast, but her work reads fast, and can maintain its momentum for pages on end: Witness the entire back half of “A Good Man Is Hard to Find.” Often, though, her urgency appears in flashes that take different forms. Plaintive and dispossessed, as in the speech by a sideshow attraction in “A Temple of the Holy Ghost”: “God made me thisaway and if you laugh He may strike you the same way. This is the way He wanted me to be and I ain’t disputing His way.” It can be bitter, as with the “fierce raw fresh hate” blooming in young Nelson, from “The Artificial Nigger.”

Then there is the dramatic urgency when O’Connor pulls the rug out from under her characters, as she does masterfully in “Good Country People.” Where first we witness the condescension of Joy, the artificial-limbed atheist, towards her unlikely, Bible-selling love interest: “We are all damned...but some of us have taken off our blindfolds and see that there’s nothing to see. It’s a kind of salvation.” Fewer than four pages later—quickly, but not hurried—that salesman has turned the tables, revealing himself to be far more cunning than expected. “You ain’t so smart,” he says, leaving Joy in a barn, her leg as his souvenir. “I been believing in nothing ever since I was born!”

Whether announced in narration, or by her cast of freaks, ersatz scholars and peddlers of piety, O’Connor’s fictional voice often held in it the hum of prophecy— momentary; monumental.

Recent stories by Matthew Pitt were cited in both the Best American and Pushcart Prize series, and his first collection is forthcoming in spring 2010.

 

ISBN: 9780374515362

Fiction Finalists that Year:

  • Frederick Buechner for Lion Country
  • E.L. Doctorow for The Book of Daniel
  • Stanley Elkin for The Dick Gibson Show
  • Tom McHale for Farragan’s Retreat
  • Joyce Carol Oates for Wonderland
  • Cynthia Ozick for The Pagan Rabbi and Other Stories
  • Walker Percy for Love in the Ruins
  • Earl Thompson for A Garden of Sand
  • John Updike for Rabbit Redux

Fiction Judges that Year:

Joan Didion, Martha Duffy, Joseph Heller, Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, L. Woiwode

The Year in Literature:  

  • Angle of Repose by Wallace Stegner won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.
  • Heinrich Böll won the Nobel Prize for Literature.

More Information:

  • Flannery O’Connor was born Mary Flannery O'Connor on March 25, 1925.
  • When she was six she taught a chicken to walk backwards, and this led to her first experience in the spotlight. The Pathé News filmed "Little Mary O'Connor" with her trained chicken, and showed the film around the country. O’Connor’s version of the story is: "When I was six I had a chicken that walked backward and was in the Pathé News. I was in it too with the chicken. I was just there to assist the chicken, but it was the high point in my life. Everything since has been anticlimax.”

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Reader Comments (6)

Simply the best American writer in the last 75 years. . . on multiple levels.

September 22, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterWilliam Walsh

If you want to write, read Flannery O'Connor's short stories.

October 6, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterWill Weaver

I WENT DOWN TO THE INTERSECTION OF PICK-UP TRUCKS AND HOLY WATER

Concerning the dedication of your Georgia historical marker under the hot Milledgeville sun

Dear Flannery,

Forty-three years after you died too young, a Georgia historical marker was stuck in the ground across the highway from the end of Andalusia’s driveway. On a boiling morning in July, in the long shadow of a big Badcock & More furniture store sign, just before the dedication ceremony started, a suntanned fellow in a red pick-up truck drove past and honked his horn. For an instant, I thought Parker was back.

The mayor of Milledgeville spoke about you in his Milledgeville accent. And then, a priest with an Irish name in a big white robe from your old church got up in front of everybody and waved his hands around and read some things from out of that book that’s not exactly the Bible. He said some things that a few of your fellow Catholics repeated with him, and then the priest flicked the historical marker, while it was still covered with an official Georgia historical marker blue cover, with holy water. He flicked his wood water wand six times. I counted.

The first time he flicked it at the cover you could see the cover quiver. If there was a moment you would have loved the most, other than that redneck in the pick up truck blasting the earnestness out of the hot air, it was that holy water business. I’m not Catholic, but these were moments I deeply understood anyway, especially since we were right across the road from where you made literary history because of those hard, perpendicular intersections you designed in your stories and two novels—the perfectly-timed crashing together of personalities and religion in all its strange forms that you made … and its haunting aftermath. We were having some near crashing together of religion and personalities right there—right by a loud Georgia state highway in a modern time as we quietly stood in the grass that belonged to your new marker and a discount furniture store.

After that priest blessed your marker, the fellow who’s in charge of the Georgia Historical Society got up there and said he was pretty sure that this was the first time in the history of Georgia historical marker dedication ceremonies that one’s been flicked with holy water. Everybody laughed and nodded at each other. God, did I think of you right then. I’m sure I wasn’t the only one who got the literary and personal importance—to you—of that moment. I saw you smiling down at this one, too: after everybody stopped laughing I wanted to shout out, like Hazel Motes would at discovering a competing blasphemer, that the feller who’s in charge of the Georgia Historical Society is wearin’ a tie covered with the logo of the state of goddamn South Caroliner!

After the roadside ceremony, we were invited to come across Highway 441—very carefully—for a reception in the main house. Your house and yard were populated with people speaking in only Southern accents and they were talking about how they knew you and when. Or how and when they knew your mother.

On your front porch an old woman grabbed my arm and asked me if I was in church Sunday. That she saw me. I said I wasn’t … I live one hundred miles from here … but if my evil twin was there, then good for him. The lady, tottering on feeble pegs, told me her name but I didn’t get it because she spoke in an accent so rich her words came out like syrup. She said she had moved onto the farm when she was fifteen and that you and her were opposites. She said she lived in that building over there. She pointed at it with a crooked finger … at the old shed where Andalusia’s current caretakers keep an old donkey named Flossie. I wondered if she was drunk. Who cares. We were all drunk on you, standing in your bedroom door gawking and pointing at your crutches, your bed, and your writing table. I’m sure you think that’s repulsive—a bunch of people crowded at your door like that. But I’m a respectful hick. I gawked with misty eyes but I didn’t point.

Heading back home up Highway 441 in my truck, I passed a couple of Georgia roadside markers of another kind—those homemade crucifixes people stick into the ground where a family member or friend was killed in a car or truck or motorcycle accident. You never know. When you see one, and you see a lot of them in the South, all you know is that death happened right there and somebody wants you to by-God know it.

But it’s never at that intersection you write about. You always see those crosses on some long, straight stretch of highway or country road. I think of you as I travel my long stretch of road and across fields of living fire, sometimes in a straight line and sometimes real crooked … as your voice strikes up in my mind … your voice climbing upward, on key, into a starry field … and those who love what you’ve done to them come to that moment of your grace on that road sooner rather than later if we’re paying attention and we thank you for it … whole companies of us … white trash and bands of black niggers and battalions of freaks and lunatics shouting and clapping and leaping like frogs. And those who have always had a little of everything and the God-given wit to use it right … your readers, wrapped tightly in barbed wire … we honk our truck horns in your honor and shout hallelujah.

Thomas Pynchon deserved this award for Inherent Vice. Too bad people couldn't see past the story's haze of cannabis smoke and into the Lemuria-deep critique of capitalism between the lines. If people were more intelligent overall and not just awed and excited by cynicism, morbidity and humorous violence, then the more deserving author would have received the award. O'Connor is an overrated adrenaline pusher. One-dimensional people are easy to shock and excite these days.

November 19, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterJeff Richey

Ok, so maybe if I could see through the cannabis haze of my memory (much like Doc Sportello in Inherent Vice) I would have remembered that I voted for Gravity's Rainbow to receive this award, as this is not a category for new fiction. In any case, same argument: Pynchon's ocean-deep critique of capitalism and the folly of Western culture at large should have won. Flat and mindless cretins vote for the shock tactics of every librarian's favorite Southern Goth... And at a time when capitalism is so need of vocal opponents. Shame shame, judges...

November 19, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterJeff Richey

Sorry, Jeff, but although Pynchon is brilliant, I would hardly consider his characters (all 100,000 of them) multidimensional. I'm sure that the readers of O'Connor are not as brilliant as Pynchon (or you - ahah) but readers, even one-dimensional readers, are attracted to O'Connor for her characters and all their dimensions.

November 25, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterCarlos R.
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