Thursday, May 3, 2012

A Menagerie of Images From the Short Stories of Flannery O'Connor Which Proves Once and For All She Boils Language Alive and Makes It Scream In Our Ears

I haven't abandoned The Biography Project....yet.  It's been a busy couple of months for me, so my reading schedule has been thrown off-kilter.  I'm still working my way through Brad Gooch's biography of Flannery O'Connor.  I'll have a more detailed book report sometime in the next couple of weeks, but for now, I thought I'd post some of my favorite lines from A Good Man Is Hard to Find, which I read alongside Flannery: A Life.  My wife has bore witness to my obsession with Flannery O'Connor for more than 25 years.  She cannot comprehend my fanatic attachment to her fiction and every so often, she'll ask, "What is it that you like so much about her?"  My mind goes blank and my tongue turns mute.  I fumble for words, but they always come out sounding like something from an idiot standing at the base of the Tower of Babel.  It's impossible for me to find adequate language to describe how O'Connor's words go straight to my core and roil around my soul, stirring the layers of muddy detritus until the water is a cloudy brown.  You see?  Even now, I can't put it into words.  I think in the future when my wife questions my odd allegiance to Flannery, I'll just pull up this blog post, point to the screen and say, "Here.  Here is why I love her so."

These excerpts are presented without further commentary.  Sit back and bask in the tart beauty of Ms. Flannery O'Connor's imagery.

A Good Man Is Hard To Find

The next morning the grandmother was the first one in the car, ready to go. She had her big black valise that looked like the head of a hippopotamus....

The trees were full of silver-white sunlight and the meanest of them sparkled.

Red Sam came in and told his wife to quit lounging on the counter and hurry up with these people's order.  His khaki trousers reached just to his hip bones and his stomach hung over them like a sack of meal swaying under his shirt. He came over and sat down at a table nearby and let out a combination sigh and yodel.

Behind them the line of woods gaped like a dark open mouth.

There was a pistol shot from the woods, followed closely by another.  Then silence.  The old lady's head jerked around.  She could hear the wind move through the tree tops like a long satisfied insuck of breath.

The River

The trolley appeared as a yellow spot at the end of the deserted street.

They got on the car and sat down a few seats behind the driver and Mrs. Connin took Bevel on her knees.  "Now you be a good," she said, "and let me get some sleep.  Just don't get off my lap."  She lay her head back and as he watched, gradually her eyes closed and her mouth fell open to show a few long scattered teeth, some gold and some darker than her face; she began to whistle and blow like a musical skeleton.

On the porch there were three little boys of different sizes with identical speckled faces and one tall girl who had her hair up in so many aluminum curlers that it glared like the roof.

There were two round photographs of an old man and woman with collapsed mouths and another picture of a man whose eyebrows dashed out of two bushes of hair and clashed in a heap on the bridge of his nose; the rest of his face stuck out like a bare cliff to fall from.

They walked to the river, Mrs. Connin in front with him and the three boys strung out behind and Sarah Mildred, the tall girl, at the end to holler if one of them ran out on the road.  They looked like the skeleton of an old boat with two pointed ends, sailing slowly on the edge of the highway.  The white Sunday sun followed at a little distance, climbing fast through a scum of gray cloud as if it meant to overtake them.

Behind, in the distance, the city rose like a cluster of warts on the side of the mountain.

The birds revolved downward and dropped lightly in the top of the highest pine and sat hunch-shouldered as if they were supporting the sky.

The sky was a clear pale blue, all in one piece--except for the hole the sun made--and fringed around the bottom with treetops.

The Life You Save May Be Your Own

His left coat sleeve was folded up to show there was only half an arm in it and his gaunt figure listed slightly to the side as if the breeze were pushing him.

His face descended in forehead for more than half its length and ended suddenly with his features just balanced over a jutting steel-trap jaw.  He seemed to be a young man but he had a look of composed dissatisfaction as if he understood life thoroughly.

Then he took a box of wooden matches from his pocket and struck one on his shoe.  He held the burning match as if he were studying the mystery of flame while it traveled dangerously toward his skin.

A fat yellow moon appeared in the branches of the fig tree as if it were going to roost there with the chickens.

The daughter was leaning very far down, hanging her head almost between her knees, watching him through a triangular door she had made in her overturned hair...

The old woman's three mountains were black against the dark blue sky and were visited off and on by various planets and by the moon after it had left the chickens.

The ugly words settled in Mr. Shiftlet's head like a group of buzzards in the top of a tree.

In the darkness, Mr. Shiftlet's smile stretched like a weary snake waking up by a fire.

Every now and then her placid expression was changed by a sly isolated little thought like a shoot of green in the desert.

Deep in the sky a storm was preparing very slowly and without thunder as if it meant to drain every drop of air from the earth before it broke.

After a few minutes there was a guffawing peal of thunder from behind and fantastic raindrops, like tin-can tops, crashed over the rear of Mr. Shiftlet's car.  Very quickly he stepped on the gas and with his stump sticking out the window he raced the galloping shower into Mobile.

A Stroke of Good Fortune

Standing up straight, she was a short woman, shaped nearly like a funeral urn.  She had mulberry-colored hair stacked in sausage rolls around her head but some of these had some loose with the heat and the long walk from the grocery store and pointed frantically in various directions.

The steps were a thin black rent in the middle of the house, covered with a mole-colored carpet that looked as if it grew from the floor.  They stuck straight up like steeple steps, it seemed to her.  They reared up.  The minute she stood at the bottom of them, they reared up and got steeper for her benefit.

All those children were what did her mother in--eight of them: two born dead, one died the first year, one crushed under a mowing machine.  Her mother had got deader with every one of them.

He was seventy-eight years old and his face looked as if it had mildew on it.

She leaned a little closer and got a whiff of him that was like putting her nose under a buzzard's wing.

A Temple of the Holy Ghost

He was bald-headed except for a little fringe of rust-colored hair and his face was nearly the same color as the unpaved roads and washed like them with ruts and gulleys.

They sat in the swing together and Wendell and Cory sat on the banisters together.  They sat like monkeys, their knees on a level with their shoulders and their arms hanging down between.  They were short thin boys with red faces and high cheekbones and pale seed-like eyes.

At regular intervals a light crossed the open window and threw shadows on the wall.  She stopped and stood looking out over the dark slopes, past where the pond glinted silver, past the wall of woods to the speckled sky where a long finger of light was revolving up and around and away, searching the air as if it were hunting for the lost sun.  It was the beacon light from the fair.

She could hear the distant sound of the calliope and she saw in her head all the tents raised up in a kind of gold sawdust light and the diamond ring of the ferris wheel going around and around up in the air and down again and the screeking merry-go-round going around and around on the ground.

She could never be a saint, but she thought she could be a martyr if they killed her quick.

The Artificial Nigger

He had a long tube-like face with a long rounded open jaw and a long depressed nose.

They were grandfather and grandson but they looked enough alike to be brothers and brothers not too far apart in age, for Mr. Head had a youthful expression by daylight, while the boy's look was ancient, as if he knew everything already and would be pleased to forget it.

A coarse-looking orange-colored sun coming up behind the east range of mountains was making the sky a dull red behind them, but in front of them it was still gray and they faced a gray transparent moon, hardly stronger than a thumbprint and completely without light.

      Nelson stopped.  He felt his breath drawn up by the woman's dark eyes.  "How do you get back to town?" he said in a voice that did not sound like his own.
      After a minute she said, "You in town now," in a rich low tone that made Nelson feel as if a cool spray had been turned on him.

A Circle in the Fire

Mrs. Pritchard was leaning against the chimney, her arms folded on a shelf of stomach, one foot crossed and the toe pointed into the ground.  She was a large woman with a small pointed face and steady ferreting eyes.  Mrs. Cope was the opposite, very small and trim, with a large round face and black eyes that seemed to be enlarging all the time behind her glasses as if she were continually being astonished....Her eyes, as she opened them, looked as if they would keep on enlarging until they turned her wrongsideout.

[The sun] was swollen and flame-colored and hung in a net of ragged cloud as if it might burn through any second and fall into the woods.

The sun burned so fast that it seemed to be trying to set everything in sight on fire.  The white water tower was glazed pink and the grass was an unnatural green as if it were turning to glass.

Mrs. Pritchard could not stand an anticlimax.  She required the taste of blood from time to time to keep her equilibrium.

The child crashed through the woods, making the fallen leaves sound ominous under her feet.  The sun had risen a little and was only a white hole like an opening for the wind to escape through in a sky a little darker than itself, and the tops of the trees were black against the glare.

A Late Encounter With the Enemy

General Sash was a hundred and four years old....He was as frail as a dried spider.

The graduates in their heavy robes looked as if the last beads of ignorance were being sweated out of them.

For his part the General felt as if there were a little hole beginning to widen in the top of his head....Several figures in black robes came and picked up his hand and shook it.  A black procession was flowing up each aisle and forming to stately music in a pool in front of him.  The music seemed to be entering his head through the little hole and he thought for a second that the procession would try to enter it too.

Good Country People

Besides the neutral expression that she wore when she was alone, Mrs. Freeman had two others, forward and reverse, that she used for all her human dealings.  Her forward expression was steady and driving like the advance of a heavy truck.  Her eyes never swerved to left or right but turned as the story turned as if they followed a yellow line down the center of it.  She seldom used the other expression because it was not often necessary for her to retract a statement, but when she did, her face came to a complete stop, there was an almost imperceptible movement of her black eyes, during which they seemed to be receding, and then the observer would see that Mrs. Freeman, though she might stand there as real as several grain sacks thrown on top of each other, was no longer there in spirit.

Nothing is perfect.  This was one of Mrs. Hopewell’s favorite sayings.  Another was: that is life!  And still another, the most important, was: well, other people have their opinions too.  She would make these statements, usually at the table, in a tone of gentle insistence as if no one held them but her, and the large hulking Joy, whose constant outrage had obliterated every expression from her face, would stare just a little to the side of her, her eyes icy blue, with the look of someone who had achieved blindness by an act of will and means to keep it.

      Her name was really Joy but as soon as she was twenty-one and away from home, she had had it legally changed.  Mrs. Hopewell was certain that she had thought and thought until she had hit upon the ugliest name in any language.  Then she had gone and had the beautiful name, Joy, changed without telling her mother until after she had done it.  Her legal name was Hulga.
      When Mrs. Hopewell thought the name, Hulga, she thought of the broad blank hull of a battleship.  She would not use it.  She continued to call her Joy to which the girl responded but in a purely mechanical way.

She considered the name her personal affair.  She had arrived at it first purely on the basis of its ugly sound and then the full genius of its fitness had struck her.  She had a vision of the name working like the ugly sweating Vulcan who stayed in the furnace and to whom, presumably, the goddess had to come when called.  She saw it as the name of her highest creative act.

Mrs. Freeman had a special fondness for the details of secret infections, hidden deformities, assaults upon children.  Of diseases, she preferred the lingering or incurable.

He had stopped in front of her and had simply stood there.  His face was bony and sweaty and bright, with a little pointed nose in the center of it, and his look was different from what it had been at the dinner table.  He was gazing at her with open curiosity, with fascination, like a child watching a new fantastic animal at the zoo, and he was breathing as if he had run a great distance to reach her.

His smiles came in succession like waves breaking on the surface of a little lake.

The kiss, which had more pressure than feeling behind it, produced that extra surge of adrenalin in the girl that enables one to carry a packed trunk out of a burning house, but in her, the power went at once to the brain.  Even before he released her, her mind, clear and detached and ironic anyway, was regarding him from a great distance, with amusement but with pity.  She had never been kissed before and she was pleased to discover that it was an unexceptional experience and all a matter of the mind’s control.  Some people might enjoy drain water if they were told it was vodka.

After he had got into the loft, he was a few seconds catching his breath.  She had sat down in a pile of straw.  A wide sheath of sunlight, filled with dust particles, slanted over her.  She lay back against a bale, her face turned away, looking out the front opening of the barn where hay was thrown from a wagon into the loft.  The two pink-speckled hillsides lay back against a dark ridge of woods.  The sky was cloudless and cold blue.  The boy dropped down by her side and put one arm under her and the other over her and began methodically kissing her face, making little noises like a fish.  He did not remove his hat but it was pushed far enough back not to interfere.

The Displaced Person

The peacock was following Mrs. Shortley up the road to the hill where she meant to stand.  Moving one behind the other, they looked like a complete procession.  Her arms were folded and as she mounted the prominence, she might have been the giant wife of the countryside, come out at some sign of danger to see what the trouble was.  She stood on two tremendous legs, with the grand self-confidence of a mountain, and rose, up narrowing bulges of granite, to two icy blue points of light that pierced forward, surveying everything.

Mrs. McIntyre was a small woman of sixty with a round wrinkled face and red bangs that came almost down to two high orange-colored penciled eyebrows.  She had a little doll's mouth and eyes that were a soft blue when she opened them wide but more like steel or granite when she narrowed them to inspect a milk can.  She had buried one husband and divorced two and Mrs. Shortley respected her as a person nobody had put anything over on yet--except, ha, ha, perhaps the Shortleys.

The priest spoke in a foreign way himself, English but as if he had a throatful of hay.

The peacock stood still as if he had just come down from some sun-drenched height to be a vision for them all.

Then she stood a while longer, reflecting, her unseeing eyes directly in front of the peacock's tail.  He had jumped into the tree and his tail hung in front of her, full of fierce planets with eyes that were each ringed in green and set against a sun that was gold in one second's light and salmon-colored in the next.  She might have been looking at a map of the universe but she didn't notice it any more than she did the spots of sky that cracked the dull green of the tree.

      Mr. Chancey Shortley was adjusting the last milking machine on a large black and white spotted cow near the entrance, squatting at her heels.  There was about a half-inch of cigarette adhering to the center of his lower lip.  Mrs. Shortley observed it minutely for half a second.  "If she seen or heard of you smoking in this barn, she would blow a fuse," she said.
      Mr. Shortley raised a sharply rutted face containing a washout under each cheek and two long crevices eaten down both side of his blistered mouth.  "You gonter be the one to tell her?" he asked.

It suddenly came to Mrs. Shortley that he was trying to persuade her to bring another Polish family onto the place.  With two of them here, there would be almost nothing spoken but Polish!  The Negroes would be gone and there would be the two families again Mr. Shortley and herself!  She began to imagine a war of words, to see the Polish words and the English words coming at each other, stalking forward, not sentences, just words, gabble gabble gabble, flung out high and shrill and stalking forward and then grappling with each other.

She had gone to drive in the cows for Mr. Shortley who had a pain in his knee and she was walking slowly through the pasture, her arms folded, her eyes on the distant low-lying clouds that looked like rows and rows of white fish washed up on a great blue beach.

He was cinnamon-colored with eyes that were so blurred with age that they seemed to be hung behind cobwebs.

He was a dirty snuff-dipping Court House figure, famous all over the county for being rich, who wore hightop shoes, a string tie, a gray suit with a black stripe in it, and a yellowed panama hat, winter and summer.  His teeth and hair were tobacco-colored and his face a clay pink pitted and tracked with mysterious prehistoric-looking marks as if he had been unearthed among fossils.

His eyes were like two bright nails behind his gold-rimmed spectacles that had been mended over the nose with haywire.  His whole face looked as if it might have been patched together out of several others.

There was a heavy frost on the ground that made the fields look like the rough backs of sheep; the sun was almost silver and the woods stuck up like dry bristles on the sky line.


  1. O'Connor is amazing. Great excerpts! My favourite story of her's is "The Enduring Chill." Here's a line:

    Block’s gaze seemed to reach down like a steel pin and hold whatever it was until the life was out of it

  2. Marvelous excerpts. Love that line about the ugly words settling in like buzzards. One to hold onto.

  3. I adore O'Connor too, David. Wrote my master's thesis about her work. I identify with Joy Hulga of "Good Country People." She's my favorite character in all of O'Connor's work (besides Flanner herself!). O'Connor's stories are brilliant, hilarious, profound.

  4. from "Revelation":

    There was an astounded silence.
    “Where she at?” the youngest woman cried in a piercing voice.
    “Lemme see her. I’ll kill her!”
    “I’ll kill her with you!” the other one cried.
    “She b’long in the asylum. The old woman said emphatically. “You the sweetest white lady I know.”
    “She pretty too,” the other two said. “Stout as she can be and sweet. Jesus satisfied with her!”
    “Deed he is,” the woman declared.
    Idiots! Mrs. Turpin growled to herself.