The Violent Bear It Away by Flannery O’Connor
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
Why are Catholics so good at making monsters? Our friend Daniel Otto Jack Petersen might eventually have some good answers for us, but at this point– having concluded my audit of the twentieth-century Catholic novels course taught by my good friend Dave (okay, not quite concluded as I skipped Brideshead Revisited and fell off the boat before our final novel, Walker Percy’s Love in the Ruins)– I can venture something along the lines of G. K. Chesterton’s “all is grist.” For the Catholic novelist, it’s all real and it’s all fair game for creation. There aren’t “bad things” off limits. All is useful for building stories, because all– even the dark and twisted– can be redeemed.
But the real, unlike for perhaps an agnostic or atheistic writer, extends far beyond the sanctity of matter to include the reality of the spiritual. Throw all that in the mix, and you get monsters out the other end. For a writer with the bizarre, piercing humor and science fiction tendencies of Lafferty, these monsters become the fleshy, jovial horrors of “The Hole in the Corner.” For the steady eye of Flannery O’Conner in the stagnant heat of southern woods, the monsters take on a stranger and more human aspect.
Because it seems to me that at the core The Violent Bear it Away is a story about monsters.
There are four monsters (five if you count the agent of the sudden, lurching violence of the penultimate scene). The first is the boy protagonist’s great uncle, who considers himself a prophet called by the Lord and who raises the boy to know the Lord’s work in a splendidly wild and woody isolation. His death at the beginning of the novel initiates the book’s plot. The second monster is the boy’s uncle, who considers himself the rational antithesis to the old prophet’s madness and who, when the boy finds his way to his doorstep upon the prophet’s death, sees the possibility of freeing the boy from the prophet’s mad shadow.
The third monster is the boy himself, who drinks himself to a stupor upon his great uncle’s death, refuses to bury his body, and instead burns down the home in which they lived before wandering into the city to find his uncle. It is this monster’s stubborn battle to resist both the compulsion to carry on the Lord’s work placed upon him by his great uncle and his “rational” uncle’s frenzied effort to reform him that forms the primary tension of the novel. The boy is taciturn, isolated, arrogant, and desperate to live out his denial of his great uncle’s holy legacy.
All these characters are monstrous, twisted, and unpleasant to observe. And yet O’Conner pulls us along with them. We are captivated by their misery, by their mutual hostilities, by their failure to accept any sort of redemption from each other.
And then there is Bishop, the fourth monster, the son of the boy’s uncle. Bishop is a child, an idiot “waste,” who can do nothing but follow along innocently– uncomprehending and unconcerned– as the boy fights against his great uncle’s imperative to baptize Bishop and his uncle’s determination to break him of this compulsion. Bishop is the pathetic eye of the storm and the focus of the only genuine moments of pathos and tenderness in the novel.
This is an Old Testament story, and the god looming on the horizon of the boy’s mind is a god of blood and fire and fury, despite metaphors of the bread of life– that tired, stale bread the boy refuses to eat. As with Graham Greene’s Heart of the Matter, the conflict here is primarily in the mind of the boy, but this makes it in no way less real. It makes it instead more tight and tortured. And it makes it all the more terrifying for where it leads.
This is not a book to read for pleasure, unless of course for the simple pleasure of reading good writing. For the story itself, the only pleasure might come in assuring yourself how far your god is from the dark and stormy god of the warm, stagnant forest and how far you are from the pathways of the boy’s own mind– until, of course, you actually read the Old Testament and are forced to ask yourself how thin the line between madness and holiness might really be.