Wise Blood

Well, the list of 12 books that I promised to read by December 31st, 2011 is now down to 10! I’ve certainly jumpstarted my reading this year, by putting in a selection of memoirs, travel books and the latest novel by my favorite author William Kennedy (the most recent edition of his Albany Cycle.)

That ambitious 2011 list of all-fiction novels has not been so readily attacked. Perhaps finishing Flannery O’Connor’s “Wise Blood” will change that.

Unlike my reading of “Fortress of Solitude” where I felt that author Jonathan Lethem may have been writing about a kid just like me–if I had happened to have an urban rather than suburban upbringing–O’Connor writes about things as alien to myself as possible: her stories follow small-town Southerners in the post-WW2 era, struggling with the role of religion in their lives. I’ve always been interested in her work and will probably go back and dive into her short stories.

I hesitate to write a review of “Wise Blood” before I go investigate other interpretations of the novel. The story is not really the point in a novel such as this. The protagonist, a veteran returning from WW2, is disillusioned with religion and struggles to articulate his belief that religion is a con. Of course, as with many atheists, he is totally consumed with denying religion–to the extent that his whole life is defined by religion. This is a book that aims to give readers a glimpse at the hard work of applying theology to everyday life.

My knowledge of religion is fairly weak–being a happy agnostic with little connection or concern for the spiritual. I like looking at the art of religious icons, appreciate the history behind the lives of Catholic saints and feel that the kind of proverbs about kindness and caring that repeat themselves throughout most religious traditions are sufficient for living a decent-enough life. I would like to know more about the theological points O’Connor makes–and even know what things in the novel are actually representations of religious themes–despite seeming to be just colorful characterization.

Readers can let the religion wash over them and still be awed by the amazing portrayal of truly damaged and dysfunctional people. It would be a shame to limit oneself to these pleasures since, absent the religious understanding, the characters become just a theatre of the absurd. The tales threaten to become Southern-gothic pulp fiction. Readers can stare at the strange and weird, but the story is deeper than that.

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