Flannery O’Connor, one of the greatest voices in American literature, would have been 90 years old on Wednesday had she not died of complications from lupus when she was 39. Born in Savannah in 1925, O’Connor was a devout Roman Catholic and much of her work explores faith and sin. O’Connor is best known for her short story “A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” but in my mind, the novel Wise Blood is her most beautiful and most haunting work.
I first read Wise Blood because I had to: the book was on the syllabus of a literature course I took as an undergraduate student. I expected to hate it. The dust jacket promised a story of “redemption, retribution, false prophets … and wisdom,” which made the novel sound like a trumped-up Sunday school sermon. Wise Blood is certainly unflinching in its central message that belief in God is, quite literally, a matter of life or death. But the novel is more than anything else a searing portrait of marginalization and loneliness. Once I started reading, I could barely bring myself to put it down.
In prose that is acerbically funny and loaded with grotesque symbolism, Wise Blood tells the story of Hazel Motes, a brutal WWII veteran who is determined to found a church based on heresy. He falls in with a blind preacher, a prostitute, and a friendless young man named Enoch Emery. They are a repulsive bunch—deformed, deceitful, lecherous, murderous—but they are not beyond hope. Hazel descends down a bloody path of sin that culminates in religious penance. The other characters in the novel are redeemed by their desire to infuse their lives with friendship and purpose.
Wise Blood peers into the darkest corners of human depravity and finds the potential for good. And if you needed an excuse to pick up a copy—which, of course, you don’t—let O’Connor’s birthday be it.