THERE IS a real sadness in recognizing an utter master whose work finally disappoints. The Complete Stories of Flannery O'Conner, a collection of 31 stories of which 12 were heretofore uncollected, leaves one with the same taste as a series of Henry James novels--panting, egged on, and unassuaged. The vision is too heavily weighted with dogma, and that vision too consistently capitulates to writerly control.
Nothing better can be said of a story than that it hints at a heart that could swell to fill a novel, but that it has the delicacy and the tease to contain itself as a story. There is none of the relief of such an overflow in the stories of Flannery O'Conner. The heart of her stories purrs so uniformly that one suspects it is only a machine. One lifts the hood to marvel at the mechanism. Uniform excellence, uniform inspiration. The result is that her stories differ one from the other as much as a Chrysler, Ford or Chevy differ one from the other.
Flannery O'Conner brings us to a new South. It is a post-apocalyptic South, an unhallowed land stretching itself somewhere after the departure from the Garden, the death of Christ, the Northern triumph in the Civil War, and the suicide of Faulkner's Quentin Compson. Her Southerners are the bewildered emancipees, the tight-lipped orphans of an erotic, innocent past. They are nothing but sinners. Where Faulkner's characters are sinners, the eroticism of their South, its very sound and fury, is their redemption. But Flannery O'Conner's characters are arrested in the thicket of their psychological-situational complexity and imprisoned in the future of dusty, democratizing sin.
MUCH LIKE Nathaniel Hawthorne, she fixes sin symbolically in a way strangely inorganic to her tale, but organic to the terror of sin and hell and the devil and the apocalypse which are the common denominators of her characters' psyches. These "fixes" themselves are apocalyptic, perversely so. As the "A" is burned into the flesh over Dimmesdale's heart in Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter, Mrs. May's heart in "Greenleaf" is gored by the bull that her handyman, Greenleaf, cannot keep penned up:
One of his horns sank until it pierced her heart and the other curved around her side and held her in an unbreakable grip. She continued to stare straight ahead but the entire scene in front of her had changed--the tree line was a dark wound in a world that was nothing but sky--and she had the look of a person whose sight has been suddenly restored but who finds the light unbearable.
Flannery O'Conner's characters are pussy, scruffy, and deformed--outwardly the manifestation of their inner selves. In the circumspect way in which she enters the minds of her characters, she reveals in their small-heartedness and small-mindedness, the disease of mental and spiritual sin. In "The Geranium" and "The Last Judgment" old age is Dudley's leprosy; in "The Life You Save May Be Your Own" it is Lucynell Crater's retarded, overweight daughter; in "Everything that Rises Must Converge" it is Julian's mother's bigotry; in "The Lame Shall Enter First" it is Rufus Johnson's club foot; and in "Parker's Back" it is Parker's tattoos. These disfigured are always the prophets and voyeurs of sin. Flannery O'Conner draws clear, black lines from the sterility, the dust and the dead-beat poverty of the southern landscape to the landscape of the southern soul. The simplicity of the correlation is underscored by the complexity of the evocation.
SHE SKEWERS her characters with detail, defying them to be human and more than her own-made characters, so much are they reduced. Impaled on the exactitude of their depiction, her characters struggle against the fascism of her control. It is the sense of this conflict that leads me to the fury and violence and desire for retribution that I read in the heart of Flannery O'Conner. It is the Old Testament universe of emotion and the New Testament solution that are the irreconcilable poles of her world. This irreconcilability makes for the discomfort and the frustration of her stories. It is not Jesus Christ and the Catholic Church which finally rule Flannery O'Conner's imagination, but Hammurabi and his "Eye for an eye, and tooth for a tooth" theology and all the emotional regression and absolutism that that implies.
The flux of difficulty and mastery in The Complete Stories by Flannery O'Conner come into a fine balance in "A Good Man is Hard to Find". There can be no regret that she spent a lifetime boning up for such a right moment.
It should not be difficult to accept that it is the primitive in us that goes to meet the primitive in Flannery O'Conner, or that the setting for this atavism is our own South. What should frighten us is that her tribal warfare scenarios find their metaphors in the passion play of Mary and Jesus. Flannery O'Conner's most telling achievement is her derision of the hemophilia of our self-images. She points out that if violence kills, it also transfigures.