This is part of a series I’m doing on my summer reading. I’ve chosen nine books, with a few ground rules: nothing by straight white men, balance fiction and nonfiction, limit the amount of theology. I’ll write something here about each book…a review? reflection? something else? We’ll figure that out as we go, I guess. You can find all posts from this series here.
MARFA (TX)–You have driven west. You hoped to escape city life and stress by going into the high desert of west Texas. Your plan is to do as little as possible: read, eat some food, lay about. This is supposed to be relaxing. One of the books you’ve brought with you is the Complete Stories of Flannery O’Connor.
An atheist woman is seduced by an hillbilly Bible salesman, who, before the act begins, steals her wooden leg and flees, leaving her stranded in the hayloft of an abandoned barn. Her fate is unknown. “‘We are all damned,’ she said, ‘but some of us have taken off our blindfolds and see that there’s nothing to see. It’s a kind of salvation.’”
You spend at least four hours a day in a hammock. You read for most of this time, interspersed with sleep filled with dreams inspired by O’Connor’s stories. You read so much that plot details, the ability for literary analysis, even basic comprehension all dissolve into the background. After about the seventh story, all that remains in this fever dream of a vacation is her characters. They are deeply human and deeply flawed. You remember a line from a country song: “baptized in muddy waters.” O’Connor didn’t write this line, of course, but it’s a better encapsulation of her characters than anything you can come up with.
An insufferably smug college student falls ill. The disease is traced to unpasteurized milk, which he drank in an attempt to bond with the black farm workers milking the family’s cows. The workers themselves did not, and indeed never do, drink the milk. It is heavily implied that the college student dies.
In the hammock, in your tent, in the wide expanse of the desert, you feel simultaneously connected with everything and more alone than you’ve ever been in your life. You did not know these were not mutually exclusive. You take late night drives on the backroads, pulling over to look at a sky so star-filled it’s unbelieveable. You feel immensely grateful to be in a place so seemingly exempt from human engineering, but there is also a twinge of sadness that comes with the realization that this desert doesn’t need you, and would be just fine without you here.
Two young people attend a town festival, but are more concerned with the fate of a man who had committed a mass shooting during the town’s preparations. They both greatly identify with the shooter. His loner status and disdain for phony pageantry attract them. The two visit him in his incarceration and find he is legitimately and dangerously insane. The young people are unsure what this says about them.
After reading 500 pages of O’Connor, something profound emerges, and despite not being in the south while reading these Southern Gothic stories, you realize that Marfa and the trans-Pecos are the perfect places to read her work. The beauty and the bleakness of the land mirrors the beauty of her prose and the bleakness of her characters. It is not the land’s job to comfort you; it is not O’Connor’s job to make you feel better about yourself. After five days, you go home, more aware, but also deeply unsettled. This seems to be the point.
An elderly woman is gored by a bull that is loose on her land. As she dies, “she had the look of a person whose sight has been suddenly restored but who finds the light unbearable.”