Friday, September 30, 2011

The Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers


The Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers is a novel rooted in the south between the first and second World Wars.  The novel is told through the perspective of five characters, one a deaf mute man who is befriended and revered by the four others—a man who own and runs a local café (really a diner), a Marxist vagrant who travels from place to place spreading his own form of gospel, a local African-American doctor, and a young girl whose family struggles to make ends meet during the Great Depression.


One of the adjectives used to describe this novel on the book jacket is “brooding” and this is the perfect description.  From the very first pages, the reader knows something is wrong and something not good is going to happen but whether it is merely a small experience or a truly tragic moment is unclear until it happens and then its impact is profound.

John Singer, the deaf mute around whom the other characters gravitate, is a sort of every man, an idealization of what the other characters expect him to be.  To each of the four, he becomes what they want and need him to be, a mirror of their own egos and desires.  He is, in some ways, the most likable and sympathetic character but, because he is so enigmatic, he is also too far removed from an empathetic appreciation that the young girl, Mick Kelly becomes the next most obviously sympathetic person in the novel as she matures and it is through her the novel feels most like a coming-of-age story. 

And yet . . .

The three other men who populate the page, who take center stage and then move off again, each offering a unique story and yet reflecting the same reality.  None of these people feel connected to anyone on a deep level.  They feel isolated and Singer personifies the only connection any of them have with the world or even themselves.  As the novel progresses, the reader can anticipate some of the losses each will experience by the novel’s end without necessarily knowing what the outcome will be.

The ending is perfect.  I simply cannot say more about it.

Why should a writer read this book?  McCullers manages to give each of her characters a voice so unique that the moment they speak you know who is talking.  Every detail from how the characters move, what they say and do, is essential and not a word wasted.  They all are so natural that even when they surprise you, you also know that what they did makes absolute sense. 

And now a personal story . . .

When I was about nine or ten years old my cousin Andrew gave me a collection of Carson McCuller’s novels and a collection of her short stories.  I tried to read them but none of them really clicked for me.  Years ago I read The Member of the Wedding which I thought was very sweet and sad.

In a way, it also reminded me very much of my relationship with my cousin because I had always felt very close to him.  He is the one who took me to the movies to see Fantasia, and King Kong, and Dr Zhivago.  He is the one who taught me to listen to the score, to appreciate the experimental and the lavish.  He was like an older brother to me and I admired him endlessly, with his boyish good looks and his love of Bob Dylan and making art. 

But he was much older than I and he fell in love and got married to a lovely dancer and he didn’t take me to movies any longer.  Then he was divorced and he married again, a woman I never felt any warmth towards.  I simply didn’t adore her the way I did his first wife.  Then she had a daughter and I didn’t know it but I too was pregnant.  My cousin’s daughter and mine were only about eight months apart in age but, by then, my cousin and I had grown miles apart.  I think we saw his daughter Amanda once or twice.  I have some photos of her one time when we were visiting my Aunt Frances and there are some adorable ones of her with Shira.  In the photos, she is wearing my sun hat and she has her father’s smile. 

With all that said, I’m glad I did not read the books when Andrew gave them to me because I could not have possibly appreciated this one at that age.  There’s just no way I could have done so.  I lacked the necessary maturity to see the beauty.  I now want to read The Ballad at the Sad Café although I don’t think I’ll reread The Member of the Wedding.  I liked it but I didn’t love it.  Not nearly as much as I love The Heart is a Lonely Hunter.

This book is obviously a part of my reading through the Books I Should Have Read By Now Challenge.

Also, the n-word appears in this novel.  Although contextually apropos I understand if anyone would prefer to skip this novel as a result.  It would be a shame to do so, however, because this book has much to say about so many things and it is used in an accurate manner, not to offend or to enrage but as it would have been comfortably, if unfortunately, used at the time in which this novel takes place.

2 comments:

  1. Well, you've convinced me that I need to finally take this novel off my shelf where it is collecting dust. I find literary works about the south and race relations to be most fascinating. I think we live in a more culturally acceptable time where we don't need to shy away from the "N" word in literary works, especially if it is being used appropriately within the historical context of the narrative. I tend to be much less forgiving when it comes to just using that word colloquially, in novels or everday speech.

    A lovely review as always and I particularly enjoyed your little anecdote. It's amazing how many novels that I have read in the last little while that my younger self would not have been able to appreciate.

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  2. Well, in Gone With the Wind it is not the use of the n-word that made me feel disgusted with racism but the exposition, where the slaves are typically compared with animals and children, and other details that made me shudder to read it, trying to understand how I, even at 12 when I first read the novel, could overlook something so obvious.

    But when used in a context where it fits, such as in this novel or in Huckleberry Finn, whether I like the word or not is irrelevant. Is it used effectively, say as dialect or vulgar language can be used effectively? Or is it being used to shock and surprise, as gratuitous sex and violence are often used in cinema.

    This is perhaps my favorite southern literature novel read in a long time. Simply blown away by it.

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