Good Country People?
April 12, 2009 § Leave a comment
Just finished: The Bible Salesman.
The first Flannery O’Connor story I ever read was “A Good Man Is Hard to Find.” I was nineteen. It pretty much made my head explode. I’d also read King Lear around the same time, and I remember thinking about how the story reminded me of the play. That same angry comedy of horrors; a similar sense of staring into a void; in both, an existential struggle with God or our sense of him. The theatre of the absurd, on a country road, with a sociopath called the Misfit.
What’s “funny” in this story, as in much of her work, is rather savage and wicked. O’Connor had a sneer behind an awful lot of her laughs. Most of the comedic work is done by the two children, John Wesley and June Star, who are little caricatured monsters: reading their comic books, jaded and utterly bored with their world, they mock everything in sight. They only come alive when their car wrecks. “‘But nobody’s killed,’ June Star said with disappointment…” Their true kin is the Misfit, with his classic closing statement: “It’s no real pleasure in life.”
The Bible Salesman has given me a good reason to revisit this story, a source for Preston Clearwater, and “Good Country People,” a source for Henry Dampier (but which contributed to Clearwater, too, it would seem — there’s something of the Misfit in this story, too). To be honest, I’d forgotten all about “Good Country People,” which features a nihilistic Bible salesman who seduces a PhD in philosophy, only to steal the lonely woman’s wooden leg. (Well, when I put it that way, the story sounds completely insane, but it’s great.)
Henry in TBS is a nice inversion of Pointer, the Bible salesman in O’Connor’s story. While we start out with some doubts about Henry — he writes letters pretending to be a circuit preacher to get free Bibles which he then sells — he grows on us, and we see the goodness and sincerity mixed up with his attempt to make a few bucks. We also follow his struggles to make sense of some of the complications and confusions in the Bible, and his struggles with faith. On the other hand, Pointer (a pseudonym) begins with a measure of our trust, posing as a nice, naive young man, but he takes advantage of Joy’s own pose of worldly wisdom and existential ennui to allow her to think that she has seduced him. In the end, he says to her, “you ain’t so smart. I been believing in nothing ever since I was born!”
The comparison between the two is nicely encapsulated by Edgerton’s use of three of the important objects in O’Connor’s story. Pointer displays for Joy like “offerings at the shrine of a goddess” a dummy Bible hiding a whiskey flask, a deck of pornographic cards, and a box of condoms. The objects reveal his selfish nihilism, the dead end of humanity he represents for O’Connor. Henry also has a flask, an “exotic” deck, and some condoms — “preventatives,” he calls them. But they’ve lost their ugliness, and gained a context. We know that Henry is not posing as naive, but actually is: a virgin, curious, and young. The flask and condoms are used, lovingly, only after Henry has discovered in the Bible that extramarital sex is hardly the universally condemned sin his upbringing led him to believe: if it’s good enough for Abraham, why wouldn’t it be good enough for him?
Some of my favorite passages in this book are Henry’s attempts to read the Bible, baffled right off the bat at the contradictory accounts of the creation in Genesis. In the truly lovely epilogue of the book, he reads an updated American translation, and finds his way to an understanding and appreciation of key passages of Ecclesiastes and Psalm 23. It is not a stretch to call this understanding existential; and it seems to me to chart a middle path between the nihilism and uncompromising Christianity present in Flannery O’Connor’s work.
Henry’s sense of engagement, of wanting to understand something that does not make sense but which has always been presented to you as infallible truth (and which you, Henry, have yourself been presenting as the most important thing money can buy), also seems something of an attempt on Edgerton’s part to redeem the vapidity, materialism, and nihilism in O’Connor’s work — what she was bucking against with her stories in the ’50s. Perhaps there are good country people, after all.