Wednesday, July 20, 2011
"Grace" is one of those words I struggle with. There are the simplistic, surface definitions like charm or loveliness. I tend to find it a complicated word, though, filled with lightness and darkness struggling for domination, with the clouds shrinking if we're lucky. I guess that means I lean more toward it meaning mercy, forgiveness, prayer, clemency, even immunity or reprieve.
I think of our former mayor, Frank Melton, a man I got to know arguably too well, someone I would lie in bed at night thinking about due to his haunting internal war between his personal lightness and darkness. It was a war that played out publicly, sucking in participants, for a man who promised "grace and benevolence," but delivered anything but. But I always saw a man in there who believed his own hype, who knew he had done very wrong, who needed somehow to find mercy and forgiveness.
But he couldn't go the distance. He resisted what it would take to quiet his demons until it was too late. So he died a broken, lonely man mere hours after losing his beloved dog and just as the polls were closing on his self-promoted mythology. He never found grace, and that is profoundly tragic.
For me, Melton has become my personal southern gothic acquaintance. He could not have existed anywhere else but the South, probably nowhere else but Jackson with our weird mixture of history and the men it has left broken and depraved. His rise and fall was ironic, bizarre and even grotesque, when you stop to picture him drunkenly slinging a stick through windows and sheetrock, or rolling around in a patch of grass with a blood-covered young man who had just lost his twin brother in a execution-style shooting.
Through it all, the grace he hawked and sought was elusive. "All human nature vigorously resists grace because grace changes us, and the change is painful," novelist Flannery O'Connor once wrote. Or maybe it's impossible. Yet, still.
O'Connor defined "southern gothic" with her astute, dark sixth sense for the tragedy of our south, the one that so often lurks just below a frivolous surface. She wrote brilliant raw stories about people trapped in their own realities and perceptions and fears, at least until they weren't any more. She was a devout Catholic, and her religion undergirded her accounts of moral crisis in everyday people in a way that no other writer has replicated.
When I picked up Ann Napolitano's new novel, "A Good Hard Look" (Penguin Press, 2011, $25.95), and read the flap description, I shuddered. A modern novelist was fictionalizing O'Connor's life, plopping a literary iconoclast down in the middle of a fictional scenario with made-up people. Who gets to do that?
Once I started reading it, though, I couldn't stop. It was if I had re-materialized in an extremely foreign world—narrated by squawking peacocks, no less—that at once felt familiar for this native of a small southern town splattered by dark streaks of hate and even blood.
From almost the first page, this novel seemed real. I could feel, somehow, the characters' seemingly pre-ordained retreat from grace as a deceptively simple plot unfolded in Milledgeville, Ga., where O'Connor returned to live out her final days in the early 1950s and where she died from lupus (she was 39 when she left us).
O'Connor is not the apparent main character; instead, the book brilliantly borrows her tone and her ethos, not to mention her powers of brutal human observation, as it unfolds the story of the pretty, rich, young Cookie Himmel, who has brought her rich fiancé Melvin home with her from Manhattan to help lead a charmed Georgia life. He is as handsome as they both are lost. Or perhaps seeking would be a better word. What is he seeking? The same thing she is: anything real ("clarity," he calls it). His turns out to be a strange friendship with O'Connor—and, ultimately, redemption and a touch of grace.
Don't misunderstand: This narrative is a great story, almost light at times, often very funny—but always with the knowledge that this propped-up happiness too shall end.
And it ends tragically. I won't tell you how: It involves an infant, statutory rape, a lot of custom drapes and some often-loveable but damn annoying peacocks (in real life, O'Connor collected them). But it's what happens on the other side of one fateful day that upends this fictional world and leaves you with an uneasy spiritual residue, much as O'Connor's best stories do.
Early in Melvin and O'Connor's fictional friendship—which feels more forbidden than an actual affair, somehow—she talks about the characters in her own work: "t's possible that the characters are closer to grace at the end of the stories. Grace changes a person, you know. And change is painful. It's just like you agnostic types to see the pain, but not the transformation."
Right there, you know this train will crash hard in later pages. And that there will be survivors, and they will find a touch more grace in their lives. What is less obvious is that Napolitano will somehow make you one of those survivors thinking about your own rocky road to redemption.
Ann Napolitano signs and reads from "A Good Hard Look" starting at 5 p.m., July 20, at Lemuria Books (202 Banner Hall, 4465 Interstate 55 N., 601-366-7619).
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