Monday, July 14, 2008

Carson McCullers at Last

Probably many of us have a list of books we always meant to read, books with huge reputations, maybe books in the honorable canon of American literature. Such a book is The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers. Wandering through my favorite thrift shop I found a copy and tossed it into the cart with the sleeveless tops and my one-millionth purse. Between checkout and home I lost the new sterling silver earrings (a fact that I still cannot believe, since I had carefully tucked them into a zippered compartment of my current purse!) but I got the book home safely, and over the weekend I read it. McCullers was in her very early twenties when she wrote this novel, but her age cannot be held against her. The characters range from Mick, a precocious pre-teen who comes of age over the course of the book, to Benjamin Cady, a doctor in his final years. In between we meet Singer (ironic name), who is deaf and mute, Biff, who owns the local diner which serves as a hub for the locals, and Jake, a wanderer, drinker, and ineffective labor organizer. The rich stew of characters impresses me, as does the shabby, small-town setting, complex but lucid, and totally believable.

McCullers was born in Georgia in 1917, so she belongs in that wonderful batch of Southern writers I barely knew existed until I lived in the South. I remember feeling angry that no one in New England or California had introduced me to Flannery O'Connor, and now I wonder why, in attending a Southern graduate program in English lit, I was never ordered to read McCullers--likely an oversight created by the limits of time and the competition from O'Connor, Faulkner, et al. Then again, my cock-eyed optimism excuses this failure: I was meant to read this novel now, when I read like a writer as well as a devoted and hungry reader of fiction. I can hardly wait to go back to the used book shelves and see what other treats await me.

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