Most of us know Flannery O’Connor from her classic short story, “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” (1953), the tale of a hapless family who crosses paths with a deranged killer. It is shocking in its cruel violence—and part of the shock comes from the humorous way that O’Connor portrays the members of the family, even as they approach their doom. Once you’ve read this story, it’s hard to forget it.
The Complete Stories, first published in 1971, brings together all the short stories O’Connor wrote during her brief career, spanning the years 1946-1964. (She died at 39, of complications from lupus.)
I kept this book on my desk at work for most of the year, reading a story every once in a while at lunch. They are strange: the epitome of Southern Gothic, marked by bizarre, often marginalized characters, deep South settings—both town and country—and startling plots. (While the grating grandmother in “A Good Man” yammers on about The Misfit, you don’t really expect that she will be executed by him.) Certainly, these tales are artifacts of another time and place, and at first glance might seem old-timey and politically-incorrect. But O’Connor also reveals truths about our country and what we value (or not) that are still worth reflecting on.
O’Connor is no bigot, but many of her characters are. Her people glimmer with religious fervor and wrestle with moral dilemmas. Yet she treats her oddball characters with respect; she may not like all of them, but she takes the time to skillfully describe them, so that the reader sees them, in all their foolish, cruel, desperate, hapless, manipulative, wheedling, expectant specificity.