Saturday, January 25, 2014

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

Ultimately a tale about religious collision, one that details the devout and at times questionable ways of self-appointed missionaries out to spread the word of Jesus and the internal struggle of a man who doesn’t quite know what he stands for, Flannery O’Connor’s “The Peeler” opens with an innocent roadside demonstration of a potato peeler. The QVC and Home Shopping Network of its day, these demonstrations involve pushy and charismatic salesmen demonstrating their wears on city streets. They play into the crowd, calling them out, and use peer pressure to support the humdinger of a deal they are purporting. It is here, among the crowd that the reader is introduced to a blind man who is led around by a little girl of strange character. Together they are seen handing out fliers inscribed with the phrase “Jesus Calls You” to the gathered crowd, a crowd that includes Enoch Emery, a dopey teenager seeking to belong but without the means to buy his way into acceptance (O’Connor 65). As the crowd disperses on account of the blind man’s handout, the piece’s central character Hazel (Haze) Montes engages in two disparate acts: first he rips the religious tract into little pieces and tosses them to ground, and then he thrusts money at the salesman to buy a peeler, doing so in a way that suggests that while he is buying it, he most certainly doesn’t want it: “Hazel Montes stood staring after the blind man, jerking his hands in and out of his pockets. He looked as if he were trying to move forward and backward at the same time…he thrust two bills at the man selling peelers and snatched a box” (67). In part due to the look he was given by the blind man’s girl and in part due to his struggles with the religious message being passed about, Haze seems to resent being called out by an unwanted slip of paper: “‘I never followed him … I wouldn’t follow a blind fool like that. My Jesus” (75). The thoughts remind of his past, of his insecurities, of his internal sins. Yet he follows the blind man, and he seems drawn to the mystery the blindness represents, even though he refuses to outright say it.

Haze seems fascinated by the blind man, fixating on him and following him, while Enoch latches on to and then pursues Haze perhaps on account of Haze’s purchase or a need for personal connection. Thus a dance begins. Haze focuses on the blind man, stalking him and staring him down, yet not really following him, for doing so would yield to his religious principles, while Enoch pursues him, chasing Haze and showering the man his personal narrative: freshly minted and out on his own, recovering from religious indoctrination at the hands of a local woman, and somewhat fearful of many of the people of the town. Enoch, a character that will surface in other O’Connor work, wants to be heard, liked, and accepting, but can find no one that will take him. Haze doesn’t want him, Enoch only follows as if he is a stray dog looking for a master. So while Haze walks around, the dolt of a boy, on the cusp of adulthood but without an intelligent bone in his body, garrulously prattles on about his life. Eventually, the four characters end up together and engaged in discourse, one that continues to reveal the defining characteristics of each: the blind man and little girl’s piety, Enoch’s ignorance, and Haze’s mystique. In this interaction that becomes a battle of sorts, Haze is forced to confront his demons, demons the leach back to his past, to his youth and an odd carnival scene that resulted in self-penance that still haunts him today.

Favorite lines: Focused a lot on her descriptive lines this time around:
  • “Haze’s shadow was now behind him and now before him and now and then broken up by other people’s shadows, but when it was by itself, stretching behind him, it was a thin nervous shadow walking backwards” (63). So calm, so passive in describing the character of a man by focusing on the man’s shadow only. Great description and masterfully written.
  • “Her mouth was open and her eyes glittered on him like two chips of green bottle glass” (66)
  • “‘Your jaw just crawls,’ he observed, watching the side of Haze’s face. ‘You don’t never laugh. I wouldn’t be surprised if you wasn’t a wealthy man” (70).

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 Heart of the Park,” “A Stroke of Good Fortune,”“Enoch and the Gorilla," 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, January 19, 2014

Book Review: 11/22/63 by Stephen King

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After digging into literary dogma for a while and constantly teaching literary cannon to my students, I reached a point where I needed a great story, one where I could be entertained, enchanted, and entranced without having to work too hard. Thus, I picked up a copy of 11/22/63by Stephen King. King always entertains, and he does so in a way where one’s imagination is piqued but one’s mind is not run through a literary grinder. Don’t get me wrong, I love literary literature, but at times it can be a drain. On the other hand, as an extension of the Dark Tower Series (one of my favorite fantasy series of all time) King created another masterpiece in 11/22/63.While it may not seem like a Dark Tower Book per se, the same themes surface, the same cross over ideas presented in the Talisman and Black House, and the same characters and locations as It. The Stephen King Universe is on full display, and the story does not disappoint.

The text focuses on a rabbit hole or bubble or portal through time (take your pick), one that transports Jake Epping, a recently divorced high school English teacher looking for meaning in his life, from the year 2011 back into 1958. Regardless of how long one stays in the past, only two minutes pass in the present, and when one returns to the past a second, third, fourth, time, the past has reset to the same day, hour, and minute as the first. It is as if you had never been there and had never journeyed back--you can buy the same clothes, car, and root beer. Looking for a vacation without taking a day off from work, heck even an hour, here you go. But does this journey come with a cost? Does time wrinkle and do these wrinkles matter?

This transportation, at the behest of an acquaintance and local burger jockey, places Jake at the center of a quandary, should he change the past, should he correct the misfortunes of others in order to create a new future, one devoid of a past where Harry the school janitor witnessed his father murder his family with a sledgehammer or should he leave well enough alone? Thus Jake enters the past multiple times with plans both big and small, but in the end he enters with the question of whether he should stop a more meaningful event than a small time family murder or the paralysis of a young girl in a hunting accident: the assassination of John F. Kennedy. If he changes these things, what will happen to the future? Will chaos reign? Will wars be avoided and lives saved? Will another World War surface? The butterfly effect is put into full view as Jake ponders what to do, and perhaps this fact is question far too overtly with almost Marty McFly obviousness, but at the same time, King works to fold the them into the narrative while reminding you that the past is the past, it has happened and should perhaps be left alone.

The question over what should be changed if anything at all is pondered over 800 plus pages, and the narrative, pumped through with history about Lee Harvey Oswald, holds together fairly well. One can get lost at times in a tale that spans five years in the not so distant past, and at times King seemed to get lost in the stories of teaching, stalking, and romance himself, but at others an attentive reader can note that such tangents follow Jake’s actual thinking. Jake is forced to contemplate whether he should stop an infamous crime while living in the past for five full years, an action that has him unwittingly dropping anchor, forging connections, and falling in love. While these moments can drag the reader off course, King picks up the slack by reminding the reader of the moral dilemma his protagonist faces. Yet Oswald and his potential crimes loom ahead, a beacon of danger in the distance that Jake must confront and either accept or deal with.