Sunday, April 5, 2009

The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers

Photo of Carson McCullers

I don't know why I never read this before. It's been the kind of wonderful book that could wholly take me away to another place and time for the half hour, hour that I've spent with it at a time. Carson McCullers was 23 when she wrote this, and that freaking blows my mind.

It's an extraordinary book. First published in 1940, and one of the characters, a black doctor, Doctor Copeland, says this:

"I have a program. It is a very simple, concentrated plan to lead more than one thousand Negroes in this country on a march. A march to Washington. All of us together in one solid body."

In 1940, the fictional Doctor Copeland had a dream. 1940. The enormous empathy and humanity and prescience that McCullers, a woman who grew up in the South, had at that tender age for the plight of the black man freaking flumoxes me. I have McCullers fever.

The book is largely about delusion, too, the delusions humans use to make life easier, to cope with slings and arrows, much like religion. Mr. Singer is singular in that he's a deaf-mute, an "other" that the various characters put their Jesus figure spin on, being as his muteness makes him somewhat ethereal and unfathomable. His quiet, attentive patience makes him like a blank Scrabble tile, played to fill each character's need. And then Singer has his own delusion in the passion he has for his friend, Spiros Antonapoulos, who is presented to the reader as a simple (as in mentally challenged), indifferent boor. And the good Mr. Singer inexplicably adores this oaf, to the tune that when Antonapoulos dies, Singer commits suicide. It's astounding, really, how complex and yet wholly true and heartbreaking it all is, and how this book explores human isolation and despair, and the nimble way we humans scramble to find a way to live with it all.

McCullers titillates, too, with Biff Brannon's inappropriate attraction for 12 year-old Mick Kelly, building tension as you wonder if he's going to go all Humbert Humbert. There's a whiff of pedophilia in the air that dissipates (pedophilia-like) when at the end he begins to see Mick losing her childishness after she gets a full-time job at Woolworth's to help out the family. There's also titillation in the inexplicable fondness that Singer has for Spiro Antonapoulos, as in: are they 'mos? The question is subtly posed; never answered. I love this. It keeps my Curious Yellow gland excited.

Craft note: Anyone wanting to nail dialect should-oughtta read this book. It some good dialect.

I officially love this book.


Andrew Roe said...

You know, this is one of those books that I've always felt I should read but never have. Now I have a reason to. Thanks, Alicia.

And congrats on the recent acceptances. Damn, you're on a roll!

Alicia said...

It's really good and I miss it now that I'm done. I heartily recommend it. And thanks so much, my one and only, for your congrats! I loved your piece in Freight Stories, and I'm honored that they're taking mine!

Hope said...

I just finished this book today and Googled it, trying to find others thoughts. I disagree a little with your last paragraph-- I agree that Brannon's attraction to Mick has a whiff of pedophilia, but I also think it's eminently more complicated than that-- and I think it's pretty clear that Mr. Singer is romantically (yes, homosexually) in love with Antonopoulos, but that it isn't reciprocated (as it can't be, given his mental health). But it's very nice to read your thoughts, especially the one about Copeland (so true); especially since I'm missing this book already as well.