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The Complete Stories by Flannery O’Connor

4 Jul

Happy 4th of July everyone! Though the day is nearing its end, I thought I’d highlight an author who I think is a sure-fire All-American: Flannery O’Connor. I’ve read about 2/3 of her short stories featured in The Complete Stories (there are so many! 32 of them, I believe), and while they have a true Southern twang to them, they also encapsulate the American voice, in all its hope and anxiety and desperation. Though O’Connor only lived to be 39, her influence on American writing today is a large and looming presence, even if she is sometimes forgotten about outside of high school or college English classes.

And hey…if you’re looking for a good beach read, what better than short stories that you can read as many or as little of as you want? You don’t have to find a convenient chapter or paragraph break to stop, and you’ll never forget a plot point. It’s always a great choice.

The Complete Stories by Flannery O'Connor

Published: 1971 as a complete collection–the stories themselves were published in┬ásmaller volumes from 1955 till her death in 1964.

Genre: short fiction, in American/South Gothic style, dark humor, sometimes satire.

Difficulty: Not at all difficult.

Quick Read: The book as a whole, not really. The stories individually? Yes!

Synopsis: Now clearly no one wants to read my summarization of a bajillion short stories, so I can maybe highlight a few interesting ones for now. Arguably her most famous one, “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” is a real classic–the story of a family whose supposedly feebleminded grandmother fears a faraway serial killer she hears about, and when no one takes her seriously, they realize she may have had reason to be afraid. The other most famous one is “Everything That Rises Must Converge,” the story of a disgruntled son whose naive but well-meaning mother forces him to ride the bus with her. When his mother accidentally gets in trouble, his struggle against her worsens until it is just too late. Some other great ones that don’t often get mentioned include “The Displaced Person” (for fans of political incorrectness and post-WWII stories), “The Heart of the Park” (if you ever wonder about homeless folks), “The River” (not for anyone who is easily saddened), and “Good Country People” (for all you fellow literary feminists out there, chew on this one).

If a large book of stories intimidates you, try her smaller collections of short stories, named after the first two stories I profiled and go from there. No way you’ll be disappointed. No way.

What makes this book awesome: No, O’Connor isn’t Twain or Faulkner or Morrison or any of those super legendary Southern American writers, but she is important. A lot of contemporary fiction writers have been inspired by her sense of realism, her use of Southern dialect, and her character’s vivid voices.

You will feel as though these are characters you’ve met before–the homeless man in your park, the elusive neighbor down the street, the woman living in a house out on a dusty nameless road in East Bumblefudge, Georgia that you ran into once on a road trip (not a place you’ll find on a map, don’t try it, or maybe do?). Her characters are incredibly Southern, but never flat or boring.

And while pretty much every story of hers has a similar plot structure–a slow build-up of tension that finishes with a twist and a shocking yet satisfying ending–it always feels new, feels right, and leaves the reader with a sense of closure. Now, depending on the story, sometimes it’s tragic closure, sometimes it’s redemptive…but it is certainly never what you thought you saw coming.

Flannery may have been ill, but the birds she bred were sick. And not in the going-to-die-sort-of-way.

Some neat-o things to know (brace yourself, I do love Flannery):

  • According to the introduction of this book, Flannery’s southern accent was so strong when she came to the infamous University of Iowa writing workshop to ask to be allowed to enroll that she had to write down anything she wanted to say to them. Read one story, you can totally see her having an accent like that.
  • She bred peacocks. Hell yeah she did. Why? Because she could. See photo.
  • Rumor has it she wrote her stories straight as they were and, in her words, “never edited.” That’s either the cockiest lie ever told or the most badass truth I personally have ever been told.
  • Flannery was quite the Christian, and claims all of her stories are about Christianity, though many have trouble seeing religion in a flattering light throughout her works. What say you, intelligent commenters?

If you like this, try: any short stories by George Saunders, The Sound and The Fury by William Faulkner, Beloved by Toni Morrison, Lunch Poems by Frank O’Hara, The Grapes of Wrath by Steinbeck, anything by Mark Twain