This kind of distinction seems more endemic to the world of art, but I think it applies: I appreciated The Heart is a Lonely Hunter far more than I actually liked it. Carson McCullers writes with an admirable grace and, for the time, a shockingly perceptive attitude toward both black and white characters. The novel also focuses on important themes, such as loneliness, and the difficulty people have in seeing past surface-level differences and connecting with each other. But for all that, I found it hard to keep picking the book up. I was put off by the lack of a driving storyline and too few interactions between the characters.
The novel is essentially the interconnected stories of five lonely people in an unnamed Southern mill town. John Singer is a deaf-mute whose only real friend, a fellow deaf-mute, is sent off by uncaring relatives to a state facility. In the aftermath of this he unexpectedly becomes a sort of confidant to four very different people. Jake Blount, an alcoholic labor agitator with no following, eats dinner with Singer at the New York Café, which is run by Biff Brannon, a widower who doesn’t care much for making the Café profitable. Singer strikes up an unlikely friendship with the town’s black doctor, Benedict Copeland, a man angered by the failure of his children to take up his causes. The most compelling character among Singer’s friends is young Mick Kelly, a tough adolescent girl with a natural ability for music that is compromised by her family’s straitened circumstances.
McCullers basically takes turns showing each character’s failings, heartbreaks, losses, and begrudging acceptance of same. Jake Blount is so argumentative it is impossible for him to even explain his ideas to people. Dr. Copeland is similarly hostile to the town’s black population, bitter and frustrated by what he feels are their unimportant pursuits. The novel is at its best in the sections following Mick as she grows into a young woman and discovers more and more about her talents, her family, and her sexuality.
The novel unfortunately does not delve much into Singer’s true character. Chapters that focus on him rarely go deeper than his tender friendship with the exiled fellow-mute Antonapolous. He is rather reductively portrayed as a simple man with a good soul. Standing at the center of a book filled with fleshed out fictional personae, this strikes the reader as a curious failure of imagination.
The novel hints at the possibility of catalyzing events (there are a couple of gunshots, and one outrageous injustice) but McCullers essentially lets these rest, refusing, perhaps out of artistic integrity, to bring her characters together, either in conflict or otherwise.
In isolation, several parts of The Heart is a Lonely Hunter are masterfully written and wonderful to read, but they are like pretty pictures in a flip book with no connection to each other.