Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Good Short Fiction: "A Good Man is Hard to Find" and "Haircut"

Collection: The House of Fiction (2nd ed.)
Editors: Caroline Gordon and Allen Tate

Title: A Good Man is Hard to Find
Author: Flannery O'Connor

A family goes on a road trip - a father, a mother with a baby on her lap, two bratty older kids, and a grandmother who has smuggled along her cat - and they end their journey at the mercy of a killer who has escaped from jail. The killer, known as The Misfit, attempts to be philosophical about what he does. He and the grandmother talk about faith and morals as his lackeys lead the family two and three at a time deeper into the forest. The tension, suspense, and feeling of dread remain intense even on a second reading; knowing what will happen allows you to recognize foreshadowing details. This is a story I still think about, mostly the conversation between the grandmother and the killer.
The grandmother had the peculiar feeling that the bespectacled man was someone she knew. His face was as familiar to her as if she had known him all her life but she could not recall who he was.

Throughout the story the grandmother shows a powerful streak of selfishness and shortsightedness, but there's something heart-breaking about her too even from the start - her attempt to remain relevant to the world and to her family, and prove that she's right and sees things clearly. That she's got a solid, unshakeable view of the world. Her family is dismissive of her, ignoring or scoffing at her opinions. To get what she wants at one point she tells a lie, a seemingly harmless, child-like embellishment that nudges them off the main road and into the killer's territory; when she realizes that she's lied just as much to herself as to her family, that her memory of cherished past events is faulty, her violent reaction leads to their car crashing. So the breakdown of her worldview proceeds.

The grandmother places a lot of stock in good blood and respectable manners, and seems to believe that those qualities alone are sufficient protections against evil; she's too well-bred to ever be evil herself, she thinks, and her lady-like ways will surely shield her from attack. When confronted by The Misfit she tries to save her skin by saying she's a lady. At the very end, grieving and desperate, with everything she cares about stripped from her, it seems she has returned to a more child-like state (or at least a time when she was much younger, before establishing a more solid, certain position in the world). It's a state from which she can start anew; she has gone closer to the root of herself, the source of her misunderstandings about life. Does she see things more clearly now? Or will she just flail in her grief and confusion, and try to latch onto anything that might offer comfort?

When she finally tells the murderer, "you're one of my own children," what does she mean? If it's a simple affirmation of a human bond between them, how much of this perceived bond is influenced by the fact that he's by that point wearing her son's shirt? Has the shirt facilitated a deeper understanding of shared humanity, or provided a comforting delusion she tries to latch onto? (That her boy, a "good man," is still with her… perhaps in a different form.)

Earlier, she had kept insisting that The Misfit must come from good family, good blood; she professed a faith in him based on no real evidence - by the end, is calling him her son a new manifestation of that desperate belief, or does she gain a fresh insight into the heart of The Misfit, and also into herself - an admission that her good blood and breeding have meant nothing, now that she has nothing; she and the Misfit are two people with nothing meaningful on Earth left to them. So she will reach out to him, for now he's truly a child of hers, with the same lot in life, and sharing a humanity with her own.

The Misfit, throwing the grandmother's values back in her face from the start, has a thoughtful air and gentlemanly manners that stand out all the more when contrasted with his brutality. In his conversation with the grandmother he seems to want a sympathetic audience, someone to understand his take on morality, see him, make sense of him and grant him some generosity of soul; but when the grandmother reaches out for him at the end, he can't bear it. He hates her touch, maybe because he doesn't trust her understanding of him; he can't stand the faith that might be delusion. Or maybe because her loving gesture, her desperate, whole-hearted impulse towards connection, reminds him of everything he's rejected throughout his rootless life.


Title: Haircut
Author: Ring Lardner

In "Haircut" a small-town barber reminisces about a fellow townsman, Jim Kendall, who died recently. He refers to Kendall as a good-natured prankster, but every anecdote he shares unintentionally reveals that Kendall was a cruel man, the kind of guy who could destroy a reputation or a life with a laugh and gloat about it after.

Like the barber, Kendall's friends and acquaintances were cheerful callous bystanders; they laughed along with him and didn't care about the scars he left on others. When Kendall dies it's not at any of their hands. The barber talks about some other people who in one way or another never fit into the town's society and so were naturally the butt of Kendall's attacks; if Kendall had power over someone, including members of his own family, he would exploit it. At the end, after he's brought about misery and heartbreak, he dies in a way that he might have found kind of funny had he ever been able to laugh at himself.

I admire Lardner's skill with characterization, and how he tells a compelling story through the barber's secondhand account. The barber and others like him are willfully blind to evil. They encourage it, delight in it, and let it run rampant. If enough people are laughing, then nothing can possibly be wrong; it's just a joke.


[Updated: 1/2015]

"A Good Man Is Hard to Find" can also be found in this anthology.

This post has been linked to at Short Stories on Wednesday #22 at the Breadcrumb Reads blog.