Book Review: A Good Man Is Hard to Find

Book Review: A Good Man Is Hard to Find

A Good Man Is Hard to Find by Flannery O’Connor is bleak and difficult stuff. I was just drooling over it for its clarity, cleanness, style, innovation and trend-setting… but was dying inside due to its content. Satirical down to the word, nothing and no one in the world of the South in the early twentieth century is safe from O’Connor’s skewering, indeed, not one (horribly or horrifying) character escapes it. It’s a dark exploration of human nature and the human condition. And it’s literary gold.

A Good Man Is Hard to Find is a collection of short stories published during her time by O’Connor herself. They represent the best of what she was doing, at the time that she was doing it (published in 1955). It was an important piece of literature gathered from various important literary magazines and was popular in its time. It has become a classic, the stories and the book still read by students, studied by literary people, and an embarrassment in some circles if it hasn’t been read. O’Connor’s writing is nearly synonymous with Southern Gothic, and one can still tour her childhood home in Savannah, Georgia (I have stood on the stoop twice). The stories in this volume are classic O’Connor: pointed, clear, violent, tragic (depressing), harsh. And some say funny. I don’t see the humor, here.

It is entirely likely that you have read some O’Connor. Three out of four people in our house can remember reading the title story, “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” (it’s so memorable—though much more memorable when one says “The Misfit” instead of its given title). I have started reading O’Connor’s Complete Stories before, but did not continue after a few. Every American is supposed to read O’Connor (which sounds funny separated from her first name, like that, though her given name was actually Mary). I would say that if you are going to read O’Connor, yes, “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” is a good place to start, and you might as well read the rest of A Good Man Is Hard to Find while you’re at it.

I was glad that this was the book for April for my literary book club (which is often a classic). Since having given up on her complete works, I figured a book club would force me to keep pushing through the dark spaces of her stories. And it did and I did. And I certainly don’t regret it. Like I said, I was struck dumb by her writing style and how clean and clear it is. I was also taken with her ability to build tension—sometimes in mysterious, clandestine ways—and sustain it through entire stories. I was so afraid for everyone in all of her stories, but some characters really leapt off of the page with my anxiety there to meet them. I found themes running through the collection, like a frustration with ignorance, isolation and powerlessness, conversely power and control, and assumptions of morality. I was a little confused about religion in her work, though maybe she was too. (All indications is that she wasn’t.) She was a devout Catholic with very firm beliefs, but her work is full of hypocrisy and, well, predatory unrighteousness.

In the words of my book club, “she does not hold back.” Also, “she begins with a bang,” which is a funny pun referring to the first story, the “Good Man Is Hard to Find” I keep referring to. It’s a hard-hitting tale, and it does dive right into ideas of wrong and right and good people and bad people, exposing the “good ol’ days” for what they are: an illusion, while simultaneously giving us a crone of a character, a wolf-in-sheep’s-clothing role-reversal who we understand as inauthentic, hypocritical. Other comments from my group: that O’Connor has “amazing style” and “can show you what she wants to.”

I couldn’t stop thinking about O’Connor’s time compared to my own. There are universal truths, sure, but O’Connor’s world is dependent on the decency of the individual, and when the individual fails they blow up the world around them making victims of the people around them. We are now more dependent on systems than individuals but, let’s face it, they can both be corrupt and sometimes—often?—are. I mean, O’Connor’s stories are so violent. It’s not slasher horror, but a reader has to sit in unease as people fail spectacularly to live out their ideologies, completely mistaken about who they and their neighbor are, acting out of impulse and pragmatism and eventually imploding. There is also sexual tension in many of the stories, though I imagine that O’Connor’s lack of explicitness in this respect is simply due to the strictures of the times—if she could have, she would have. I mean, she did get away with a lot, as it is.

Which leads me to the big ol’ trigger warning: O’Connor refers to Black people with the vernacular and understanding of the white Southerners of her time. Even when she was stabbing at racism, which she certainly was, this was a different time. Don’t look for ideas or language that would meet today’s ideas of politically correct or progressive. (Yes, the n-word is used several times.) Look for a moment in history. And for some insight into race relations.

A Good Man Is Hard to Find is so full of clear writing that it took me until the beginning of the second-to-last story to have one moment of confusion. It’s Southern Gothic at its darkest and best. Some might call it tragi-comedy, even funny, but I found nothing about it a laughing matter though I found all of it to be a thinking matter. Dense. Rich in thoughts, history, and literary moments that will continue to teach us into at least the near future, O’Connor’s stories are true, American classics and a real, American treasure.

Note: my favorite story in the collection is “A Late Encounter with the Enemy.” I have my reasons, mostly thematic.

Another note: some suggested similar reading that came out of my book club was “Why I Live at the P.O.” by Eudora Welty, as well as “Everything That Rises Must Converge,” by O’Connor.

Flannery O’Connor was born Mary Flannery O’Connor in 1925. She lived most of her life in Georgia—she was born in Savannah but settled in Milledgeville. She actually started out as a cartoonist and went to Iowa’s and Yadoo (prestigious programs that are still looming large in the writing world) before being widely published. She died young of complications of lupus. Her life was generally quiet, spent mostly on the family farm with her mother. The pastoral and rural life is apparent in her writing.

O’Connor’s works are:

  • Wise Blood (1952 novel)
  • A Good Man Is Hard to Find (1955 short story collection)
  • The Violent Bear It Anyway (1960 posthumous novel)
  • Everything That Rises Must Converge (1965 posthumous short story collection)
  • The Complete Stories (1971)

Flannery is a 2021 American Masters documentary that won several awards and would definitely be worth watching.

“’Have you ever,’ Mr. Head had asked, ‘seen me lost?’” (p105).

“’All I got is four abscess teeth,’ she remarked. / ‘Well, be thankful you don’t have five,’ Mrs. Cope snapped and threw back a clump of grass” (p136).

“In those times, she said, everythihng was normal but nothing had been normal since she was sixteen” (p162).

“If she don’t get there before the dust settles, you can bet she’s dead, that’s all” (p179).

“Nothing is perfect. This was one of Mrs. Hopewell’s favorite sayings. Another was: that is life! And still another, the most impotant, was: well, other people have their opinions too” (p179).

“If you want me, here I am—LIKE I AM” (p181).

“You could not say, ‘My daughter is a philosopher.’ That was something that had ended with the Greeks and Romans” (p185).”’In that barn,’ she said. / They made for it rapidly as if it might slide away like a train” (p199).

There have been several adaptations of O’Connor’s work. Pertaining to this collection, there is a 1957 version of “The Life You Save May Be Your Own,” an episode of Schlitz Playhouse of Stars titled “The Life You Save” and starring Gene Kelly. It was the only adaptation O’Connor allowed and was very disappointed in it. I understand that it is not loyal to the original material.

There is also a 1977, one-hour adaptation of “A Displaced Person,” Displaced Person with Samuel L. Jackson. It is supposed to be much better than the previous, but maybe not awesome. It was shot on O’Connor’s family farm, Andalusia, though, using many of the historic props, so that is really pretty cool. I wouldn’t mind trying to hunt this one down.

There’s a 1976 version of “A Circle in the Fire,” 1975 “Good Country People,” and 1976 “The River.” Many or even all of these might be hard to find or prohibitively expensive to acquire.