Monday, September 1, 2014

The Heart is a Lonely Hunter (Carson McCullers)

Normally when I write these posts I try to write them a day or two after I've finished the book.  That way my rapidly aging and booze-addled mind can still remember what the hell it was that I just read.  But alas, this time life intervened in the form of a business trip, so I'm blogging about a book I finished over three weeks ago.  That may seem like a tiny puddle of time to many of you, but to me it's a lifetime.  I mean, I could have died two weeks ago and I probably wouldn't even remember it by now.

Anyway, for those of you who care (i.e. no one) you will have noticed that with this book I strayed off my list of the 105 books I want to read before I die (assuming I haven't died already...see above).  The thing is, after reading Thucydides (which I loved, don't get me wrong) I wanted to venture into a work of fiction that was a little bit of a breezier read, and I've had this classic book on my shelf for years and decided to give it a shot.  I don't know why exactly I didn't include this book on my original list.  After all, the Modern Library put the novel 17th on its list of the 100 best English-language novels of the 20th century.  So it must be pretty good, I figured.  Plus the author, Carson McCullers, wrote the book when she was 23, so unlike me her brain was probably still in top working order when she penned it, and not pummeled by years of booze, broads, and whatnot like mine.  Not that I ever got pummeled by broads, except in my dreams.  Sigh.  Still waiting for you to call, Chloe Sevigny.

The book was published in 1940 and takes place during the 1930s, in a small southern town.  Carson herself grew up in Columbus, Georgia, so she knew the South, and the book is pretty much in the Southern Gothic tradition of eccentric, lonely characters in a sleepy town where nothing much happens except for loneliness, detachment, and brooding, until things are punctuated by sudden outbursts of unexpected violence and terror.  Sad, lonely, depressing stuff.  It reminded me somewhat of Flannery O'Conner, whom I read years ago, although the characters in this novel weren't as utterly crazy as some of hers.  But the loneliness and detachment abounds in all the characters.

The focal character of the novel is John Singer, a deaf mute who lives with his fellow deaf mute Spiros Antonapoulous.  Singer dotes on Spiros and puts a lot of effort into their friendship, but Spiros is oblivious, perhaps in part due to the fact that he's mentally ill.  Spiros soon starts to behave in very odd ways and gets committed to an insane asylum.  This leaves Singer lonely and sad.  But soon Singer is befriended by an odd assortment of quirky, lonely characters, including (1) Biff Brannon, the owner of a diner where Singer hangs out, and a man whose wife of many years suddenly dies of cancer, leaving him totally detached and lonely, (2) Jake Blount, a communist labor agitator who's new in town and a raging alcoholic, (3) Dr. Benedict Mady Copeland, an idealistic black physician who is totally estranged from his children, mostly because they didn't grow up to become the idealistic, successful role models he had hoped them to be, and (4) Mick Kelly, a tomboyish girl who is obsessed by music and dreams of playing the piano, but whose family is so dirt poor that they'll never be able to afford her a piano or any sort of music lessons.  Mick is the one ray of hope in the lot, because she's young and she's clearly both fascinated by music and has talent for it (we can tell because she seems to have an astounding memory for the classical music she hears on the radio, even though she's never played an instrument).  But in the end, after her family must pay for damages due to an accidental shooting by her brother, she has to drop out of school and go to work as a store clerk, and while there's still some hope for her I suppose, her future looks pretty bleak.  Talent and potential snuffed out by abject poverty at a young age.  Ugh.  And while all these characters are convinced that Singer is their best friend, they really don't know him at all...they assume he's a great and wise person because he doesn't say anything (he is mute, after all), and so they can just see in him what they want to see.  They don't really know him, and they don't know at all about Spiros and how much Singer misses his friend.  Eventually, Singer visits Spiros in the insane asylum only to find that he's died there, and so he kills himself, and all Singer's "friends" are mystified.  Bleak.

God, even writing this review is depressing me.  All these characters are so disconnected and isolated.  Which we can all relate to, because we all go through that, at least at times.  But hopefully for most of us we're not always stranded in a small sleepy town, isolated and lonely and trapped with no one to relate to...stuck in our loneliness like a bear in a steel-jawed trap.  So yes, it's a great well-written book, and well worth reading, but you'd better pray you'll join me in early onset senility to get the lonely memories of this sad tale out of your head.  Sigh...