Flannery O’Connor, the fierce Southern Catholic writer who died in 1964 at age 39, after struggling for 13 years with lupus, is not the first person who would spring to mind as a poster girl for the well-lived life. But that’s her role in Ann Napolitano’s new novel, “A Good Hard Look,” and she shines in it.
O’Connor retreated to Andalusia, her family farm in Milledgeville, Ga., in 1951 after she was diagnosed with the autoimmune disease that had killed her father when she was 15. Initially given just five years to live, she focused on what was important to her: her writing, her Catholicism and her dozens of pet peacocks.
Napolitano’s second novel (following “Within Arm’s Reach”) is set during the last two years of O’Connor’s life. It resurrects the tart-tongued author as an engaging character, but it is neither a biographical novel nor a reproduction of O’Connor’s searing style. (Brad Gooch’s excellent biography, “Flannery: A Life of Flannery O’Connor,” gives a fuller picture of the writer’s life.) That said, Napolitano’s protagonist is a marvelously outspoken, uncompromising force who becomes the impetus for several fictional Milledgeville residents to reassess and radically alter their lives.
“A Good Hard Look” takes its title not from Smokey Robinson’s song “The Tracks of My Tears” (”So take a good look at my face, you’ll see my smile looks out of place”), but from Flannery’s advice to a graduating high school class: “Take a good hard look at who you are and what you have . . . and then use it.”
Napolitano has cleverly divided her book into three sections, each shorter than the one before it: “Good,” “Hard” and “Look.” These roughly delineate stages in her characters’ lives. The novel opens on the eve of the wedding of local belle Cookie Himmel, who has somewhat improbably lured recently orphaned banking heir Melvin Whiteson to relocate from his family mansion in New York. The bride and groom, both staying with Cookie’s parents, are startled awake in the middle of the night by the unholy braying and bellowing of Flannery’s peacocks. Although the resplendent birds appear in Christian art as symbols of immortality and incorruptible souls, in this novel Flannery’s cacophonous flock generally augurs trouble. But as with humans, their less appealing aspects are occasionally mitigated by moments of great beauty, when the male birds spread their fabulous tails.
Not surprisingly, Melvin, both unmoored and uprooted, finds adjusting to life in small-town Milledgeville difficult. He is quickly drawn to its most famous — and interesting — resident, who makes him feel alive again by challenging him to live up to his potential. Unfortunately, his wife has expressly requested that he have nothing to do with Flannery.
And what does energetic, socially ambitious Cookie, who runs half the committees in town and has aspirations for her husband to run the other half, have against the crippled author? In O’Connor’s novel “Wise Blood” — “the only book Cookie had ever read from cover to cover” — Cookie saw herself in one of the less appealing characters. She “was discomfited by how these ugly words had the ring of truth about them,” capturing “her actual, ugly soul.” Cookie tries to get O’Connor’s work banned from the local library: “She writes about people and makes them ugly. That’s what she does. It’s who she is,” she argues.
Flannery, meanwhile, chastises Melvin for his lack of ambition and sense of purpose: “God has given you everything. He’s given you wings, but you’re walking around with the rest of us.” Melvin isn’t the only character in “A Good Hard Look” walking around in a fugue state. Interwoven with his story is that of Lona, the bored, often stoned wife of a striving police officer with eyes on the police chief’s job. Lona is hired by Cookie to sew curtains for her new home and, reluctantly at first, takes on the unhappy teenage son of the town gossip as an assistant. Like Flannery and Melvin, the two connect in ways that make them feel more alive than they have in years — but with dire consequences.
Napolitano has a predilection for similes (“The crowd peeled apart like banana skin”), some of which are unfortunately tainted by cliche (“His uniform fit him like a glove”). She paints a somewhat simplified world in which everyone is an only child and there seem to be just two places to live: Milledgeville or Manhattan. But despite these limitations, she has spun an absorbing, old-fashioned tale about how, as in Flannery O’Connor’s stories, “Grace changes a person. . . . And change is painful.”
McAlpin reviews books regularly for NPR.org, the Christian Science Monitor and the San Francisco Chronicle.