Monday, November 9, 2009

Great Literature

When I pick out my books, I don't have a specific process. I'll give almost anything a try. If I've heard something about it or seen it displayed repeatedly, I'll check it out. If I like the cover or the title, I'll check it out. I figure that as long as you make timely returns, getting books from the library is risk-free. If it sucks, what have you wasted? If it's good, your adventuresome tastes have been rewarded. But sometimes there are books that are in a whole other category of good, and Carson McCullers' The Heart is a Lonely Hunter is one of them.

After I finished the book, I read the back and realized something shocking to a modern reader -- it's unblurbable. The back merely describes it as "a tale of moral isolation in a small Southern town." Well, what the hell does that mean? The style of the book is one that you simply don't see anymore. Nothing specific HAPPENS in this book, really. Nor can you say that it's totally character-driven.

In fact, it's much like real life. Imagine, for a moment, that you've found yourself in this small Southern town during the Depression. It's night, and you don't know what to do with yourself, so when you pass by the bar, you go in. It's not completely dead in there, but the bartender doesn't have much to do and is in a talkative mood, so he talks to you. He tells you all about his own life and his relationship with his wife. He points out one patron and tells you that the guy is a deaf-mute and has been eating the same three meals a day there for weeks now. He points out another guy and says he's been here just under a week, but he's getting drunker and more belligerant every night. While you're talking and drinking, a girl of about twelve or thirteen comes in and buys a pack of cigarettes. The bartender sells them to her without comment. The belligerant guy gets up and starts yelling at the deaf-mute, talking some nonsense about how the deaf-mute "knows." The belligerant guy gets ejected only to cause a sensation by staggering back in with a black man (remember, it's the 1930's South). The bartender finally sorts things out, stamps out the impending fight, gets the black man safely out of the bar, and conducts the belligerant drunk out the door with the deaf-mute, who's offered the man a place to sleep it off.

You've just met all of the principals of this book. But you don't realize it yet. They all turn out to be interesting in different ways. Two things bind them all together: their mutual fascination with the deaf-mute, Mr. Singer, and the fact that they are all seekers. The young smoker, whose first name is Mick, is somewhere in the middle of a large family that has converted their home into a boarding house. But somehow, deep inside of her, there is music. She has a tremendous gift, she can remember entire symphonies and compose even though she can't play any instruments herself, learning how is what she dreams of. The black man who got dragged into the bar is the black doctor in town. He has spent his whole life trying to uplift his fellow blacks, who are mostly poor and uneducated in his town. In the process, it largely cost him his own family.

I won't tell you about the rest of the people in the bar, for finding out is one of the pleasures of the book. It's also a rare pleasure, too. Modern novels seem to me to be much "busier". They all have destinations and beginnings. They are highways, and this book is a meandering county route, as the main characters all engage in their solitary, forlorn hunts for a kindred spirit and soulmate.

The book is also interesting in an anthropological way. I saw a program on TV once about a certain section of New York City (I can't remember which one). They talked about a movie that had been filmed there in the 1940s, a largely forgettable one, but one thing that stuck with me was a comment from their interviewee. He pointed out that in the movie, people hang out on their stoops, listen to the radio together, and walk around simply for the sake of seeing what was going on. He then said that television was introduced two years later, and that all of that came to a grinding halt. This book gives a glimpse of life before television, too. Young Mick making her "radio rounds," hiding in the bushes of classical music listeners to hear their radios. Biff, the belligerant drunk, working at the "Sunny Dixie Show," a cut-rate fair with one ride and a bunch of carnival games whose circuit embraced the outskirts of the town. The black doctor's daughter going to pitch horseshoes on Saturday nights.

You don't see that sort of thing much anymore. The novelty of a "Sunny Dixie Show" would wear off fast even in small towns. Horseshoes and other such games are generally a sideline a party where everyone already knows each other, not an organized event where strangers might meet. And the minute Mick got too close to a house, all of the motion-sensor lights would come on and she'd soon find herself trying to explain her love of music to the police.

Not that the world of this unspecified small Southern town was all roses, of course. Many, many bad things happen in the course of this book. The black doctor and his family are all good people, but are affected profoundly by the racism of the town and of the era. Mick's family loses their fight to stay afloat due to a tragic and foolish accident. The joy of the Sunny Dixie Show is marred by brawling. These realities make the quests of the main characters all the more poignant and vital. And much of the change that has happened since the 1930s is, of course, positive. But in reading this book, I couldn't help think of the ways that technology has cut people off from each other. The heart is still a lonely hunter, but with fewer grounds to hunt in.

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