Flannery O'Connor's debut novel, Wise Blood, was first published in 1949. It's a rather odd, slightly disturbing, tale set in America's evangelical Deep South after the Second World War.
The story follows a young man, Hazel Motes, from Eastrod, Tennessee, who returns to the South after four years in the army. We know little of his background other than his grandfather had been a preacher, his younger brother died in infancy and his other brother fell in front of a mowing machine when he was seven years old.
We also know that as a child he had wanted to follow family tradition and become a preacher, but somewhere along the line — most likely in the war — he has turned completely against religion and does not believe that Jesus exists.
When he arrives back home he comes across a "blind" preacher, Asa Hawkes, and his 15-year-old daughter, Sabbath, and is so infuriated by their "message" that he decides to set up his own anti-religion. It is called The Church Without Christ.
"I'm a member and preacher to that church where the blind don't see and the lame don't walk and what's dead stays that way. Ask me about that church and I'll tell you it's the church that the blood of Jesus don't foul with redemption."
He then buys a car (even though he doesn't have a driving licence) and travels the streets looking for convenient places — usually out the front of a movie house — to preach his message, where he is generally given short shrift. When another man "adopts" his religion but calls it the Holy Church Without Christ things get complicated — and violent.
A comic novel — or a macabre one?
In the Author's Note to my edition, Flannery O'Connor writes (in 1962) that Wise Blood is a comic novel about a Christian malgré lui. But I have to admit I didn't see much that was funny and was often disturbed by the undertone of menace throughout and the ways in which the narrative often turned on violent or macabre events.
But there's a lot to mull over here, because even though the book is just 160 pages long, it's jam-packed with ideas and issues and moves along at a clipping pace. I often had to re-read entire pages because I had missed a crucial piece of information and I think I could probably read the book for a second time and still not feel I had grasped everything to which the author alludes.
For instance, I'm still not quite sure of the purpose of a secondary character, Enoch Emery, an 18-year-old loner who befriends Haze on his second day in town. Enoch believes he has a purpose but he doesn't quite know what it is — and even when he steals a museum artefact as a "religious icon" for Haze's church, he still doesn't know why he's behaved in such a manner. Perhaps he's a metaphor for blind faith, for simply following a religion without knowing why?
The role of the character of Sabbath Hawkes is much more obvious: she's a temptress who Haze initially wants to seduce. When he later changes his mind, she pursues him with a kind of religious fervour.
For such a short book, there is certainly a lot to think about. And as a reading experience, I was constantly uneasy and unsettled as I turned the pages. Motes might be joyless, cold and uncaring — in fact, I might go so far as to say he's psychopathic — but somewhere along the line you begin to care about him, especially when he goes to extraordinary lengths to punish himself. That in itself — the ability of a writer to make you feel for a truly unlikable character — is a talent not to be underestimated.
I wouldn't say Wise Blood is a fun book, but it's certainly a wonderful Gothic tale that tickles the brain matter and I'm glad I finally found the courage to pluck it from my TBR where it has sat undisturbed for several years.
I read this book as part of my year-long Project 1001 in which I aim to read at least a dozen books listed in Peter Boxall's '1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die' over the course of 2013.