I must confess to you that I am not as deeply learned a man as I pretend to be, and that no other book has pointed this out to me quite as much as that of Wise Blood by noted Southerner and Catholic Flannery O’Connor. Indeed I confess that in general I am often left flummoxed by the so-called Great Catholic Novels, a revelation that might not surprise people who know me and my lack of reverence, but which is nevertheless a curiosity to myself. I feel like I know enough of Catholicism through exposure that I should be able to recognize it even in its subtle disguises, but alas it would appear that I am wrong.
Wise Blood tells the story of Hazel Motes, a young man recently let out of the army, who is voyaging south after finding his hometown largely abandoned and his mother deceased. Hazel is the grandson of a preacher, but he hates Jesus and thinks that redemption through Christ is a lie. When Motes reaches his destination he meets a series of tragicomic caricatures that torment him further and drive him to preach for his new church, the Church Without Christ, "where the blind don't see and the lame don't walk and what's dead stays that way."
These caricatures include the lonely simpleton Enoch Emery, an 18-year-old guard at the zoo who is desperate for companionship, unaware that his incessant talking turns everyone against him. There are also the Hawks, blind street preacher Asa and his sexually-charged teenage daughter Sabbath Lily.
Here’s where my idiocy shows through. Though the book is billed as a comedy I didn’t find much funny, except maybe Sabbath Lily’s letter to an advice column, which I won’t spoil by quoting here. Though it is said to be infused with Catholicism, I didn’t see in it any strain which I recognized. And though it is said to be a classic novel, I didn’t see much in its plotting to be admired.
One thing the novel does have going for it is O’Connor’s prose, which is gripping and very strong, possibly even masterful. It was spare, but also witty and fanciful in the right places, as when comparing the color of the sky to the fur of a wet goat. This was also a short read, due both to its low page-count but also because it is a very propulsive narrative. Unfortunately, all that propulsion never seems to power the story anywhere, and it is dispiriting that the novel’s characters have so little to do with one another as the story advances. The novel’s plot turns verge on the melodramatic, and then the story just kind of ends, extremely unsatisfactorily.
Maybe I don’t know as much about Catholicism as I think I do, since I have had by and large the exact same reaction to other reputed Catholic Classics, Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited and Graham Greene’s The End of the Affair. Not that conversion should be a goal of novelists, but all three of these novels, if possible, might have pushed me further in the other direction.