Monday, June 27, 2011

NOÖ Knows Stories #11: Ella Longpre on Flannery O'Connor

Flannery O’Connor was everywhere. I read her in every town, in three states. It was “Good Country People” that got me. The smarmy Bible salesman and his side-part, he really thought he had everyone fooled, but I knew all about him.

Maybe the third time I’d read that story, freshman year in college, I had just broken with a fundamentalist religious group I’d belonged to for six years. Though I’d never met a Bible salesman, I recognized this character right away. I’d seen plenty of traveling preachers on tour, toting around their self-published books and Gospel CDs and charming Southern drawls. They visited our tiny congregations, young and inspired, often looking for a wife, preaching holiness, devotion, and reminding us that our daily focus should be the transcendence of our sinful flesh. As a teenager, I wanted to be one of them myself. I wanted to preach the word. I gave sermon-ettes on Sunday afternoons. I evangelized door-to-door. Then one day in Atlanta, I watched as one of those preachers committed a sin he had just, that day, preached against for an hour.

That moment opened up holiness for me, turned out its insides made of filthy rags. O’Connor’s Bible salesman opens up holiness, too—when he’s stolen Hulga’s wooden leg and finally unclasps his suitcase where all those Bibles are supposed to be.

Though I took a break from Flannery O’Connor after freshman year of college, I often re-told “Good Country People” in an effort to get friends to read her. I described that preacher in detail, and that moment when he opens the suitcase, and inside there are no Bibles, only glass eyeballs, wooden feet, wooden hands, hooks, and other prostheses pilfered from other girls in other barns. How his true calling is misusing religious devotion to cheat proud women out of their independence.

Last month, someone returned The Complete Short Stories to the library where I work. Thus ended my break from Flanner O’Connor. So many characters I delighted to watch yet again—serial killers, dishonest little boys, upstanding racists and oppressive mothers. I welcomed the South back into my heart and watched as O’Connor ripped it open, ripped the South open, slashing scissors through the great pillow of the South to find the iniquity hidden within. The struggle of goodness puffing itself up against evil until it deflates into a pathetic, mundane attempt of desperate people just trying to do OK.

I got to “Good Country People.” I was pleased—chatty neighbor, yes, she’s here, and here’s the judgmental mother, and the sour-puss atheist with the horse sweatshirt, and finally, the dopey potato-faced Bible salesman. This time, though, in the barn, when he opens his suitcase to throw in Hulga’s wooden leg, inside there are no prosthetic limbs or glass eyeballs or other stolen synthetic body parts. I had remembered the suitcase all wrong, and packed it, myself, with those limbs. Because really, in the story, his suitcase is empty, save for two Bibles. — Ella Longpre

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Delicious desire.

In a learned
memory you
can find the
atmosphere that
often appears
near a luminous

Francesco Sinibaldi