Sunday, August 29, 2010

Come on, Baby! Let's do the TWIST!

Confession time.

Mom, do NOT freak out when I say this, but lately ...

... I have been binge-reading.

It's true. There's no use in trying to hide it. I think, deep down, most of you have had your suspicions for awhile now about my over-zealous relationship with books. You've seen me squeeze in few sentences at stoplights or sneak off to a Starbucks for some time alone with my literary lunch buddy or even forego a trip to the gym to finish "one more" chapter. Lately, though, I just cannot get enough of them.

I've always loved books. Just ask my dad about the seven days we spent in Maui, each reading five tomes by Harlan Coben. Or how about when I read Dr. Charlotte Greenspan's prodigious new Dorothy Fields biography in a single setting? See? This love of the literary is nothing new. This summer, though, my appetite for words has been especially voracious. I've devoured them, like most people devour their first American meal after six days on the Mexican mission field.

Among several others, there's been "The Help," by Kathryn Stockett. This masterpiece of Southern literary "cuisine" features a chubby young character whose name is - are you ready? - Mae Mobley. The child's name is Mae Mobley. Even if it had no other redemptive qualities (and trust me - it does), I'd have read the book on that ground alone. I've also read "Hell-Fire," a biography of Jerry Lee Lewis by Nick Tosches. And without a doubt, the most delectable dish of the summer was, appropriately, "My Life in France," by Julia Child. I triple dog dare you to read that book and not fall in love with the effervescent joie de vivre that is my beloved Julia. It cannot be done.

The surprise hit of the summer, however, was this: Flannery O'Connor's collection of short stories called "A Good Man is Hard to Find."
I found this bargain-priced paperback at a place called McKay's. McKay's is a used book store in Knoxville, and if you ask me, it'd be more aptly-named "Mecca"-ys, for it is a veritable Paradise to malanourished bibliophiles.

Anyway, I am typically no fan of short stories. This collection, however, had two things going for it. First, it was written by O'Connor. Second, and this is what really sealed the deal, it is named "A Good Man is Hard to Find." Plucking it from the overstocked shelves, I couldn't help but chuckle and think, "Ain't that the truth, Mary Flannery? Ain't.that.the.truth?" Thus sold, I bought the book and shortly thereafter found myself sitting somewhere, digging in to souffle of stories.

Here's another confession. These were the first of O'Connor's works I'd ever read. Novels by Eudora Welty? Those I can quote, but her co-Queen of Southern Fiction I had, ashamedly, never read before. I say that for background. You see, had I read O'Connor before, I wouldn't have been so surprised by what very quickly was established (in my mind, anyway) as a key characteristic of her ten- to twenty-page tales.

They start off very sweet. These stories, with few exceptions, are domestic descriptions of mid-century life in the rural South (most often O'Connor's native Georgia). Readers, if they're anything like me, spend the first several pages thinking, "Why, isn't this such an adorable anecdote about the time that precious family drove from Florida to Tennessee?"

And then ... BAM! ... the family is killed by an escaped convict.

Not quite so precious anymore, is it?

Then there's the one about the little boy who spends a happy day with his babysitter. Ah, I was a babysitter. I can relate to that! Together, these two visit a faith healer at a service held down by the river. Next day, the cotton-topped tyke leaves his home, heading, the reader presumes, for the home of his babysitter.


Instead (SPOILER ALERT), little Harry Ashfield returns to the river where he was baptized the day before. This trip, however, Harry DROWNS.

What the what?!

As you can see, Flannery O'Connor was not only Welty's Co-Queen of Southern Fiction. She was also the Grande Dame of the Twist Ending. You'll be reading along, so happy for the mute, over-thirty maiden (bless her heart) whose mother has finally swindled some stranger into marrying her and never anticipate that that one-armed wanderer will eventually abandon Little Miss Can't-Say-a-Word at a road side stop before heading on his merry way to Mobile.


And you assume that Ruby Hill will get used to the idea of her surprise pregnancy. Though she's never cared for children before, surely she'll warm to the idea, learning to love the little fella and laughing about the day when she said she didn't want him. No, no. What actually happens is a neighbor's child causes Ruby to fall down the stairs. The fall, of course, results in a spontaneous abortion, which Ruby refers to as "a stroke of good fortune."

Admittedly, it's amazing to me that a mind can even conceive of story snarls so totally macabre. What's even more amazing, though, is how masterfully O'Connor does it. Her stories are simple. Very rarely are there multiple plot-lines, and O'Connor gets the stories just about back to the station before they jump the track, coming to abrupt and very unexpected ends.

She was brilliant. Her works were each tasty treats, and her career was cut short by an illness that plagued much of her life.

Since finishing the collection, however, the idea of "twist endings" has been turning over in my mind. My life could use an unexpected twist right now. I'm not after O'Connor's brand of plot permutation - no drownings, miscarriages, or abandonments, thank you very much - but a job would be nice or a little money left over at the end of my month. Heck, I'd even settle for a some forward motion made by my dissertation committee. What I need, I guess, is a YES when the "reader" of my life is anticipating just another "NO."

Now, THAT is something I could sink my teeth into!

No comments:

Post a Comment