Tuesday, November 26, 2013

On Reading Flannery O'Connor's "Wildcat"

Post four of my tour through Flannery O’Connor The Complete Stories centers on “Wildcat.” This piece continues the flow through the six stories that comprised O’Connor’s master’s thesis at the Iowa Writers Workshop. Like the other six that start her collected works, the piece never saw print in her lifetime.

“Wildcat” is a terse piece, one rich with authentic dialect that rings true to a time when the educational gap between rich and poor, black and white, created a linguistic gulf. While some may contend such a separation may still exist today, the piece is driven by the language and the thoughtful way in which O’Connor crafts dialogue. The characters sound real, and there conversations drive the piece, turning the pages.

As the narrative commences, Old Gabriel, blind not from age but from birth, converses with his grandchildren, calling them by name using not his eyes or ears, but his nose. The idea of smell extends into a vision of Gabriel’s youth, one where despite his handicap, he desires to step out and prove himself: “‘I could er gone wit ‘em,’ he said sullenly. ‘I could sniff er smelled it out. I ain’t afraid’” (O’Connor 27). The wildcat his grandkids fixate on cannot possible be the one from his youth, but one of these animals smells like another, and thus the scent, the sheer primal nature of it, haunts Gabriel. The cat of his youth ate a man, the grandkids are not yet men, they too could fall victim despite their thoughts to the contrary.

That smell from his youth, the smell now cannot possible be real or the same. Old Gabriel, unable to locate the cat with his eyes, unable to picture it, finds himself thinking it is there, thinking he can smell it. Like the parents of a newborn child who always think they hear the baby crying, he too searches for the foil to his peace: “He could smell the other jus’ the same. He had been smellin’ it, been smellin’ it ever since they started talkin’ about it” (29). He wants the cat, he wants to find it and go at it, and the tension is created, for how can a blind man hunt, how can he be of use against an able bodied, man eating beast: “They’d lose him in the woods, they’d say. Huntin’ wildcats won’t no business for him” (30)? Thus Gabriel stews and speculates and sits in his chair. Will the cat attack him, will it break into his house, or will it only devour cattle?

Either way, the act of sitting, draws him closer to death. If the cat were to take him, despite his fears, he may greet it with open arms. Thus Gabriel confronts his end in what maybe the story’s most beautiful line: “Across on the river bank the Lord was waiting on him with a troupe of angels and golden vestments for him to put on and when he came, he’d put on the vestments and stand there with the Lord and the angels, judging life” (31). Like many old men, especially those scorned by youth, overlooked as helpless, Gabriel judges. The youth confuse him, fail to listen to him, do everything wrong when others can lead them in the right direction. What pains him is the lack of ears for his judgment—people either don’t want to or care to listen to him, to covet his wisdom. These boys are no different: “‘How many wildcats you killed, Granpaw?’ Gabriel stopped; the plate of side meat tremored in his hand. ‘I knows what I knows, boys’” (32). As in “The Geranium,” the elderly in these early O’Connor works are shown to be weak but wanting, to be helpless but out to prove themselves. The piece ends with Gabriel knowing full well what his family thinks of him and knowing full well how he will meet his end.

Other posts on the The Complete Stories include “The Life You Save May Be Your Own,” “The Geranium,” “The Barber,” “The Wildcat,” “The Crop,” “The Turkey,” “The Train,” “The Peeler,”“The Heart of the Park,” “A Stroke of Good Fortune,” “Enoch and the Gorilla,” “A Late Encounter with the Enemy,” “The River,” “A Circle in the Fire,” and “A Good Man is Hard to Find. If the book interests you, please use the link in the first paragraph or click the picture to support my efforts when you purchase the text.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

On Reading Flannery O'Connor's "The Barber"

After leading off my tour through Flannery O’Connor with my favorite O’Connor story, “The Life You Save May Be Your Own,” and following up with “The Geranium,” I will enter into my third installment, “The Barber.” The second story in The Complete Stories, this piece is early O’Connor, another product of her time at the Iowa Writers Workshop, and a piece that never saw print in her lifetime. While not as complete and telling as some of her later work, it still holds substance.

“The Barber” rings of repetition as Rayber confronts the political divisions of a local election. At the heart of the election comes a central issue of both the south and O’Connor’s writing: racism. Just as Dudley struggled to deal with racial integration in his new surroundings in “The Geranium,” the characters in the piece confront the election as a racial decision, having to pick sides to take part. Unlike the America of today, where we are polarized along lines of liberal and conservative dogma, the time O’Connor focuses on perceives race as a central issue of the political debate. Vote Jim Crow or move on. The candidates are both white, but they offer differing views on integration. Picking a candidate forces one to select a racial mandate, picking a race means picking a side, nominating yourself as a progressive in a mostly regressive time, or sticking up for the ghosts of the past.

Rayber, the story’s protagonist stands as an academic looking to make his mark. He wants to stand out, to persuade others, and to do so in the educated, progressive way. He is a man who doesn’t want to pick sides: “‘I am neither a Negro- nor a white-lover’” (O’Connor 15). Yet Rayber focuses on being politically correct, on how he is perceived, and makes such an effort to say and do the acceptable thing, that he falls flat, coming off as weak and needy, and thus is victimized and categorized by the man he deems ignorant: The Barber.  The Barber corners him, calling on social conventions, asking him where he stands, and Rayber, so ready to prove himself, takes the bait: “‘How’d you like a couple of black faces looking at you from the back of your classroom?’… ‘Willing to teach any person willing to learn—black or white’” (19). Thus Rayber is fully identified, he is for change, the betterment of society, and while backed into a corner, he attempts to argue the issue.

Unlike most, he schedules the argument, goes home, plans it out, and even discusses the issue with his mentor, a fellow professor who only scoffs and states, “‘I never argue’” (22). Jacobs doesn’t argue, because he doesn’t need to impose his view, he refrains from battling over ideals, because ideals are sacred, and thus are staunchly defended by those who possess them. Thus, as Jacobs slyly notes, Rayber is destined to fail, which he does. He ends the piece, less sure, basking in his inadequacy, demonstrating his overall failure. Just like Shiftlet will fail to find solace in his actions in O’Connor’s more refined work, Rayber fails to find himself, fails to assert himself at any level as being anything close to respectable, and fails to convince the Barber’s negro employee that the man who supports the rights of the disenfranchised deserves support.

Other posts on the The Complete Stories include “The Life You Save May Be Your Own,” “The Geranium,” “The Barber,” “The Wildcat,” “The Crop,” “The Turkey,” “The Train,” “The Peeler,”“The Heart of the Park,” “A Stroke of Good Fortune,” “Enoch and the Gorilla,” “A Late Encounter with the Enemy,” “The River,” “A Circle in the Fire,” and “A Good Man is Hard to Find. If the book interests you, please use the link in the first paragraph or click the picture to support my efforts when you purchase the text.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

On Reading Flannery O'Connor's "The Geranium"

This is post two of the series. After leading off my tour through Flannery O’Connor with my favorite O’Connor story, “The Life You Save May Be Your Own,” I will now start The Complete Stories at the collection’s beginning, “The Geranium.” While not as clean as many of her other stories, this piece still holds psychological substance. Something is there, something that the reader wants to get to the heart of.
The piece, originally published as part of O’Connor’s thesis and later revised and republished as “Judgment Day,” concentrates on decaying isolation of Old Dudley. Dudley has left his life behind, left the south, left the land where things are strong, powerful, and proud. New York, the land of his daughter’s apartment, stands as a cell to an old man who lived a full life in the expansive freedom of the south: “The apartment was too tight. There was no place to be where there wasn't somebody else. The kitchen opened into the bathroom and the bathroom opened into everything else and you were always where you started from” (O’Connor 7). Dudley’s isolation rests just below the surface throughout the duration of the narrative. His age, his background, and the obvious collision of the two worlds, north and south, open and closed, engulfs the man:  “He was trapped in this place where niggers could call you "old-timer." He wouldn't be trapped. He wouldn't be. He rolled his head on the back of the chair to stretch his neck that was too full” (13). As long as he lives, Dudley will remain wedged between the past and the present in a world he fails to understand.

So he sits by the window trying to glimpse his past. Dudley stares out at his favorite flower, yet even the flower exists as merely a wisp of what it was back home: “The geranium they would put in the window reminded him of the Grisby boy at home who had polio and had to be wheeled out every morning and left in the sun to blink” (3). This geranium, glaring from across the alley, further enhances the theme of melancholic isolation that will haunt Dudley throughout the text. He can’t touch it nor can he go near it—the space is too vast, the gulf too wide. Like Dudley, the flower appears weak, decrepit, and not quite whole. Everything has changed and he can never go back, a fact that is made fully concrete when he learns of the flower’s fate.

Dudley has forsaken his independence in South. His daughter, at least in his mind, cares for him out of duty, and where he used to care for the old ladies in the boarding house, he did so to feel needed and whole, not with his daughter’s compulsion: “not be so taken up with her damn duty” (4). Thus the daughter is viewed with resentment, the city a trap. He dreams of getting lost, fails to connect with the rivers of cement that have replaced the river he used to fish on with the negro servant Rabie, and exists as a wallflower in his daughter’s apartment. Yet, O’Connor pushes the issue, spelling the bitterness out, for Dudley fails to take ownership over his offspring, identifying her with the article “the,” repeatedly calling her “the daughter” in lieu of taking ownership (6). This daughter, one that he can never call his, is fine living next door to negroes, a fact that Dudley can’t take—in the south they are two separate classes, divided by their past, by the gulf of slavery and wars and blood, but in the north, they intermingled, and Dudley wretches at such a fact: “he didn't know his own daughter that was raised proper would stay next door to them-and then think he didn't have no more sense than to want to mix with them. Him” (9). It is such internal angst that rests at the story’s final resolution as Dudley finally bares his soul.

Other posts on the The Complete Stories include “The Life You Save May Be Your Own,” “The Geranium,” “The Barber,” “The Wildcat,” “The Crop,” “The Turkey,” “The Train,” “The Peeler,”“The Heart of the Park,” “A Stroke of Good Fortune,” “Enoch and the Gorilla,” “A Late Encounter with the Enemy,” “The River,” “A Circle in the Fire,” and “A Good Man is Hard to Find. If the book interests you, please use the link in the first paragraph or click the picture to support my efforts when you purchase the text.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

On Reading Flannery O'Connor's "The Life You Save May Be Your Own"

I’ve been writing a lot lately, an activity that invokes the need to read. Reading prompts inspiration and reminds me of craft. It also gives me a break from the lives of the characters that haunt my existence. So I’ve decided to add to the many partially finished books in my home (one per room I think) by working through my favorite collection of short stories, none other than The Complete Stories by Flannery O’Connor. O’Connor remains one my favorite authors of short fiction. Not only did she understand the southern United States, revealing the Gothic idiosyncrasies and deformities of the region, but she wrote with such honesty that she was able to create a clear and unique visage of both the region and American life in the first half of the twentieth century. I plan to reread the text cover to cover, reflecting on what I may.

To begin with, I have chosen my favorite O’Connor piece, something to wet the pallet and excite the reader. This story, “The Life You Save May be Your Own,” tickles every fancy that is the south: religion, deceit, the fear of God (something far different that religion at its core), trust, hospitality, and the ghosts of the Civil War past that seem to linger on every corner. I think the above list could extend on and on, but should suffice for now. The following will spoil some of the piece, but will leave enough out to allow the read to be a pleasant and fulfilling experience worth undergoing.

The story focuses on the interaction between three characters: The Old Woman who lives on a decaying farm, her daughter Lucynell Crater, and the aptly named Mr. Shiftlet. Shiftlet is a tramp by trade, a traveler not living off the land, but living off of others. He moves from place to place seeking shelter and sustenance, doing so under the guise of innocence and lacking a left arm. Instantly, the reader confronts Christian imagery that will resurface throughout the text—is this deformed man representative of a hidden evil, something shifty and dark sneaking up to destroy The Old Woman’s paradise or is he just a decrepit man in need of help? O’Connor avoids being covert in her description, describing Shiftlet in a less than trustworthy light: “He seemed to be a young man but he had a look of composed dissatisfaction as if he understood life thoroughly” (O’Connor 145). This man hides himself as he avoids answering questions, he wants to appear innocent as he pontificates about mysteries life, yet, at the same time, he exudes a vibe of distrust, a secrete knowledge that extends deeper. Shiftlet basks in his duplicity: “’I can tell you my name is Tom T. Shiftlet and I come from Tarwater, Tennessee, but you never have seen me before: how you know I ain't lying? How you know my name ain't Aaron Sparks, lady, and I come from Singleberry, Georgia, or how you know it's not George Speeds and I come from Lucy, Alabama’” (147). He avoids being anyone while attempting to encompass everyone at the same time. Something is amiss. Such distrust is further presented when Shiftlet strikes the pose of a cross against the setting sun: “He turned his back and faced the sunset. He swung both his whole and his short arm up slowly so that they indicated an expanse of sky and his figure formed a crooked cross” (146). A deformed cross, a deformed, secretive man, each reference a creature of sin, something to be feared, yet The Old Woman misses said truths.

The Old Woman sees the man as an opportunity as well. Just as she is pegged as an easy mark, Shiftlet is pegged as a tool for her. Some things might get fixed, some work done, some company had: “he began on the roof of the garden house while Lucynell, the daughter, sat on a rock and watched him work. He had not been around a week before the change he had made in the place was apparent. He had patched the front and back steps, built a new hog pen, restored a fence, and taught Lucynell, who was completely deaf and had never said a word in her life, to say the word ‘bird’” (150). The biggest problem she faces, the problem she needs to fix, comes in the form of her daughter. A girl of near thirty, she appears to be just around fifteen. She too represents the grotesquely disabled and deep down this is a story about disability. Shiftlet lacks an arm, The Old Woman teeth and street smarts, Lucynell her wits and the ability to hear. Everyone must confront their overwhelming faults, the decay of their society, the failure of their morals. Lucynell is no different. While in the body of an adult, Lucynell is far from it and fully dependent on a caretaker, something that burdens the mom, forcing her to imagine a life without her precious daughter, or with the addition of a man: “She was ravenous for a son‑in‑law” (150). Lucynell could be a tool to acquire land, wealth, fame, but not an object of desire, even for the sinister minded.

This search, the need for a home, a place to belong, and someone to take care of that very domicile, drives the piece. The Old Woman passes her daughter off on a man that doesn’t want her, offers her up for a home, for a farm, for a just fixed car and the price of a honeymoon. Each are to receive mutual gain, but a shifter must shift, must move on, and Shiftlet does just that, expressing his need to go, before taking his unwitting bride on a honeymoon into the storm: “Mr. Shiftlet's smile stretched like a weary snake waking up by a fire. After a second he recalled himself and said, ‘I'm only saying a man's spirit means more to  him than anything else. I would have to take my wife off for the week end without no regards at all for cost’” (152-153). On this trip, at a roadside diner, Lucynell is abandoned, left to her own devices asleep at the counter. Shiftlet declares her a hitchhiker, and no longer worthy of his attention. Ironically, it is here she finds someone that can look past her faults, it is here, as her newlywed husband prepares to walk out the door, that Lucynell is finally seen to be an angel: “‘She looks like an angel of Gawd’” (154). It is here Lucynell exits, but Shiftlet, devil incarnate, drives on, pushes towards Mobile, racing a storm, a cloud of darkness that engulfs him, showering him with sin, revealing his true nature.

Other posts on the The Complete Stories include “The Life You Save May Be Your Own,” “The Geranium,” “The Barber,” “The Wildcat,” “The Crop,” “The Turkey,” “The Train,” “The Peeler,”“The Heart of the Park,” “A Stroke of Good Fortune,” “Enoch and the Gorilla,” “A Late Encounter with the Enemy,” “The River,” “A Circle in the Fire,” and “A Good Man is Hard to Find. If the book interests you, please use the link in the first paragraph or click the picture to support my efforts when you purchase the text.

What Michael Lewis Taught Me

On November 12, 2013 I had the pleasure of hearing author Michael Lewis speak as part of The Florida Forum, a speech series to generate donates for a children’s hospital. As expected, he offered an informative and comedic narrative that revealed information surrounding his motivations as an author, anecdotes about his texts, and finally his upbringing. It was the latter that struck me most, for Lewis and the moderator of the conversation brought up a 2004 article that appeared in The New York Times Magazine entitled: “Coach Fitz’s Management Theory.” The article details the trials and tribulations encountered by Lewis’ iconic high school baseball and basketball coach, and how the coach was struggling to adapt to the new breed of children, and at the time was facing termination for methods deemed too harsh by a small group of influential parents at the private school. If you haven’t read it, please do, it is worth the fifteen minutes.

While I had never read the piece, I quickly found it, and gave it a good read. It struck home. As a teacher and coach working in a similar environment, I wanted to understand the situation—what had happened to make an icon, one who alumni groups were fundraising to name a new athletic facility after (as well as give a place to display the man’s numerous athletic achievements made in the name of the school) expendable? What it came down to was a very similar message to what Lewis spoke about in his speech that night—overprotection. We as parents, we as society, insulate our young against failure, feeling failure is, well a failure. If our child doesn’t get the grade we feel he should have, we did something wrong, not the child, and thus somebody needs to pay. This coach had called students out on their individual failures in order for both the individuals and the team to understand their lack of commitment. A few kids had been offended—they never fail—and the ball was set in motion.

I see such moments in the classroom every day. A student chooses not to read “The Tempest” or Candide. So said student fails to perform on his assessments, is unable to produce an intelligent and coherent piece of writing, and thus his parents are sent into a whirlwind over the how’s and why’s and the blames. Usually, when the dust settles, the emails are written, the phone calls are made, they see the light: little Johnny was supposed to read, he decided that reading was a boring alternative to Twitter or Facebook or Snapchat or YouTube, so Johnny didn’t read. Thus Johnny failed. This fact may be unacceptable to some, but it is the truth. Our layer of protection, with parents hovering just above, attempts to shield this failure. According to this logic, these children should feel strong at all times, avoiding an instance where their self-esteem can be chiseled away.

Lewis validated these ideas by citing how his children are involved in two softball leagues—one that doesn’t keep score, the “sweet league” where everyone wins at least half of their games, and one that is about winning and more accurately emulates real life. He sees the benefit in both, but as his article and speech mention, society is now running from the latter. His coach, Coach Fitz, had struggled to connect with a society more focused on fun than work, one that lacked the understanding that hard work leads to the very moments where fun can be had, and that in order to live a full, complete life, one must understand life is not a party. Spring Break might have to be skipped, ski trips eschewed, if one is to find commitment. There are days you will have to work, and work, by definition, is hard.

As a coach, I have encountered the same moments. Students are given a chance to travel the world, visit another country, and have a great experience. Yet, they will miss a ton of practice, and while they can run on their own a coach knows they are not likely to. Thus the student forgoes hard work, needed work, and later on, when they are to perform athletically, they do not. The missed time added up, detracted from their performance, and thus led them to failure. They took the failure hard, sought reasons for it, but refused to face that they themselves had caused it. Their lack of commitment created failure, their search for instant gratification did as well.

What was fascinating about Lewis’ speech, is that while talking to a banker, he applied similar lessons to Wall Street and Too Big to Fail Banks. These institutions had shields, whether purposeful or not, to protect them from failure. The vast majority of the institutions continued on unscathed while the common man suffered. The problem, as Lewis iterates in his article back in 2004, is that to the rest of us, to most everyone, is that failure is frequent. We had to fall off our bikes in order to learn how to ride them. We had to get dirty, to practice sliding, in order to slide into third base properly. If we never fall, if we never fail, we fail to learn. The books remain unread, the miles not run, and life goals never fully achieved.