Stories about “the action of grace on a character” who resists it
Everything That Rises Must Converge. By Flannery O’Connor. Introduction by Robert Fitzgerald. Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 269 pp., $16, paperback.
By Janice Harayda
Flannery O’Connor raised peacocks, a symbol of immortality in Christian art. Her stories rank among their American literary equivalents, a sign and example of timeless fiction about sin and redemption in an age of ephemera.
O’Connor once said that all of her stories were about “the action of grace on a character who is not very willing to support it” – typically because of pride, envy, sloth, gluttony or another of the seven deadly sins. This is not to say that her work is abstruse. Everything That Rises Must Converge has nine of her later stories, and all are taut, clear, linear and free confusing shifts in point of view or time frame. They are among the most reliable antidotes to the disjointed, postmodern fiction that is so popular today.
All of the stories in Everything That Rises Must Converge are tragicomedies that expose a spiritual void in the lives of their characters. The gap is typically thrown into relief by the convergence of races, classes or generations in the newly integrated South. One of the best stories is “Revelation,” which involves a self-satisfied churchgoer brought low partly by an assault that occurs in a doctor’s waiting room after a patient hears her alternately praising Jesus and talking about sending blacks back to Africa. Another of the finest is “Parker’s Back,” which deals with an ex-sailor who tries to ease his spiritual emptiness by marrying a preacher’s daughter and filling his body with tattoos but who suffers cruelly when those efforts intersect. In all of the stories in Everything That Rises Must Converge, redemption comes through divine grace after tragedy or great sorrow. Six of the nine end in violent death – they reverse the pattern of contemporary mysteries that serve up a corpse in the first pages – and in those in which everyone lives, an inner cataclysm unfolds.
For all their tragedy, these stories brim with humor. O’Connor keeps tragedy and comedy in an equipoise that few American writers can match. In the title story, a bitter and ungrateful college graduate lives at home and sells typewriters because he can’t earn a living as a writer. Julian mocks his widowed mother’s reverence for her prominent ancestors even as he benefits from the family pride that keeps her from tossing him onto the street: “She lived according to the laws of her own fantasy world, outside of which he had never seen her set foot. The law of it was to sacrifice herself for him after she had first created the necessity to do so by making a mess of things.” The humor modulates in this and other stories from deadpan wit and droll irony to much more satirical commentaries that fall equally on whites and blacks.
O’Connor died of lupus at the age of 39 and won a posthumous National Book Award for fiction her Complete Stories. Few winners of that prize have deserved it more, and her stature has grown since she received it. In 2009 the sponsor of the award asked the public to vote for the first “Best of the National Book Awards” winner. O’Connor won for her Compete Stories, which includes all nine that appear in Everything That Rises Must Converge.
Best line: Two from “Greenleaf”: “Wesley, the younger child, had had rheumatic fever when he was seven and Mrs. May thought that this was what had caused him to be an intellectual.” “She was a good Christian woman with a large respect for religion, though she did not, of course, believe any of it was true.”
Worst line: At times O’Connor uses a perhaps too heavy-handed verb, such as “hissed” or “groaned,” instead of “said” or another that sits more lightly on the page.
Published: 1965 (first edition).
Caveat lector: Everything That Rises Must Converge doesn’t include two of O’Connor’s best stories, “Good Country People” and “A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” which appear in the 555-page The Complete Stories. But it stands on its own and has an excellent 21-page introduction by Robert Fitzgerald.
Book clubs: If you can’t read one of O’Connor’s books, try reading three or four of her best stories, such as “Greenleaf,” “Revelation,” “Parker’s Back” and the title story in Everything That Rises Must Converge.
Furthermore: One-Minute Book Reviews has also reviewed O’Connor’s Mystery and Manners: Occasional Prose. It posted quotes from that book on symbols in fiction and on “compassion” in writers. Jonathan Yardley reviewed a collection of O’Connor’s letters in the Washington Post. One of the best resources about her work is the Flannery O’Connor Repository. Andalusia, the Georgia farm on which O’Connor raised peacocks, has a peafowl aviary open to visitors.
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© 2011 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.