That was the spring of my failed attempt at college, now long back, though I still remember how the assignment came to me:
in stapled sheets, double-sided and twin columned, with printed edges that had gone slanted from the awkward way the book had been angled on the copy machine. Its pages were not many.
The story represented the epitome of Southern fiction. This according to my professor, who hailed from points north and who had never found good reason to sit on a front porch, had never chased lightning bugs through a summer field, and who, so far as I gathered, had never witnessed a haint. To my mind, all lack of such knowledge rendered this man incapable of proclaiming such a thing. And yet there I sat on the porch swing one April evening, stapled sheets in hand, having a transplanted Yankee tell me what constituted my people’s finest storytelling.
I vowed to try the first sentence alone, judging it for myself.
There I found: The grandmother didn’t want to go to Florida. A simple sentence on the face of it, declarative and plain, subject meeting verb meeting infinitive and preposition. Indeed, the only thing I found spectacular in those eight words was how I could not take my eyes off them. They held a power. A mystery. Who was this grandmother? Why didn’t she want to go to Florida? Why was she digging her heels in so? Those eight words captured me not merely by what they said, but what they didn’t.
That first sentence turned into the first paragraph and then the first page,
the story of the grandmother and her son Bailey, his wife, their children John Wesley, June Star, and the baby, all on their way to Florida and a chance encounter with a dangerous convict known as The Misfit. It is a hard trip made worse by the grandmother’s presence. Here is a woman who considers herself holy in a way that is not and freely passes her judgment upon any and all, bemoaning how the world has gone to hell and how hard it is to find good men these days. Her actions result in an automobile accident that leaves the family stranded on a lonely dirt road. Their rescue comes in the form of The Misfit himself, who proceeds to order his gang to take the grandmother’s family into the woods and execute them all.
And here in the last breaths of her life, the grandmother is offered the grace of understanding where her life has gone. In The Misfit she finds the ability to see others with compassion and understanding, saying even, “Why you’re one of my babies. You’re one of my own children!” before The Misfit murders her, leaving her final words as a seed planted in The Misfit’s heart to bear fruit on some day long ahead and leading to what became to me the third finest sentence in the English language. There is the sixteenth verse of the third chapter of the Gospel of John, the first sentence of the second paragraph of the Declaration of Independence, and these words, uttered by The Misfit: “She would of been a good woman if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life.”
I read that story twice, the pages shaking in my hands all the while.
When I finished I turned to the back page where the professor had attached a picture of the author. Imagine my surprise when I found the writer of such violent power, such darkness and such grace, was in fact a frail-looking woman plain of face, standing with crutches in both of her arms as she gazed upon two peacocks near her feet.
That was my introduction to both Flannery O’Connor and “A Good Man is Hard to Find.”
I have kept both close to me ever since. I expect I always will. Through her voice I have sought to find my own, and oftentimes the courage she possessed to gaze hard into the human soul is one I seek to borrow. Her world was the South in all its glory and degradation, characters who exist in lives of hubris but who see their worlds destroyed by violence in order that they may wake from their slumber. So that they may gain a moment of grace, a spiritual light in their darkness. And in these tales of poor families and proud grandmothers and brutal criminals, we come to see ourselves as who we are and who we can be.
“The fiction writer has to engage in a continual examination of conscience,” she one said. “He has to be aware of the freak in himself.” I believe that true, just as I believe there is no higher aim for any of us. How could it not?