Southern Gothic

I was in Savannah a few weeks ago with friends. We walked down the tree lined avenues, lazily in the heat, snapping photos of monuments and foliage. We passed a large church, twin steeples rising high into the blue, architecture modeled on cathedrals of old Europe. A block from there, the gothic spirals still visible above the sprawling oaks, Richard exclaimed, “That’s Flannery O’Connor’s house!”

It didn’t mean much at the time, but thinking back on it – those strolls in Savannah are a remarkable companion to O’Connor’s work.

Wise Blood – her first novel – can most accurately be described as weird (even the backflap denotes it as so). The narration follows Haze Motes, a gawky WWII veteran, as he arrives in a small Tennessee town. His dilemma is spiritual – he is a preacher’s son, but his quest is to rebel against that heritage. He begins to preach the Church without Christ, commits sinful acts, decries the concepts of redemption and salvation.

Early on, he meets a blind street preacher (and his seductive young daughter). The cast of characters is rounded off by Enoch – a lonely young man who guards the zoo, and Onnie Day Holy – yet another competing street preacher. All can be shown to act with selfish motives, except for Haze, who increasingly acts in the mold of a martyr, caking on the self-flagellation.

At times the tale can be a bit lopsided. Character arcs are truncated without completion, and themes aren’t fleshed out. But there’s no doubting O’Connor’s prowess as a writer – her ability to write biting and often humorous dialogue, and her nuanced gift to evoke the warm strangeness that is the South. Haze Motes is an example of the grotesque, a staple concoction of Southern Gothic writers (of whom Flannery O’Connor is a standard-bearer).

In the end, I see Wise Blood as a tale of a man who destroys himself for an ideal – lofty and distant. And among the monuments and graveyards of O’Connor’s youth, that’s a fitting metaphor for the South, an epithet for iconic America.

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