Tuesday, August 9, 2011
It's no secret that I'm a Flannery O'Connor fan. I gained my genuine appreciation several years ago when the literature anthology I used for AP English (Bedford Intro to Lit) included four or five of her stories. I'd read one or two before, but when I read--and taught--several together and had the advantage of some accompanying essays by and about her, I became a real fan.
One of my favorite culminating activities was to host a talk show (Think Sally Jesse Raphael or Maury Povich) during which my students came in character. I let them decide on themes related to the recurring ideas we saw in the book. They were easy to locate--Misfits, Bad Kids, Dysfunctional Families. Television producers today would find a gold mine in June Star or Joy/Hulga or Manley Pointer.
Ann Napolitano's new novel A Good Hard Look is set in Milledgeville, Georgia, O'Connor's home town in the sixties, the years leading up to her death from lupus, the disease that also claimed her father at an early age. In this book, though, Flannery and her mother Regina are just two of the characters whose lives intersect, sometimes in the same violent way that her characters' did.
Cookie, a hometown girl, returns from New York to marry Melvin, a wealthy young man she met there and convinced to move to Georgia for her. Lona, the bored wife of a policeman aspiring to be chief, becomes too close to Joe, the high school boy she takes on as an assistant as a favor to her mother, who looks after Lona's daughter Gigi during the day.
While Cookie is working in the local women's clubs to ban Flannery O'Connor's books, which she believes make the town look "just awful," her new husband is giving Flannery driving lessons and building a strong and unusual friendship, a secret he keeps from his wife.
Napolitano has done her homework, including details from O'Connor's life--her trip to Lourdes at her mother's insistence, her writing, and in particular her legendary peacocks, which play a prominent role throughout the story. The author keeps the research light--enough to sate O'Connor fans, to be convincing, without letting someone else's stories take the place of her own. Rather than throw up too many plot details, she instead shows the author's anxiety, her need to get it right, knowing that her writing is all she'll leave behind.
Napolitano's writing is good, her eye for detail, for mind-searing images. She also handles the subject of religion, faith, and grace, important themes in O'Connor's works, with credibility and sensitivity. Readers may find an urge not only to read more by and about Flannery O'Connor, but also to take a look at Napolitano's earlier writing as well.