(Written in 2003 for amazon.com)
My copy of _Everything That Rises Must Converge_ has been shouting at me from high up on my bookshelf for several years now. I don’t know when I picked up this book; in the dark ages, I suppose, back when I appreciated no book more than the Bible, and most books less than Louis L’Amour’s _Sackett’s Land_. But my book keeps yelling. “Hey …!” it says. “I’m getting booklice up here! What are you reading that [book] for …?”–Don’t be too alarmed. All of O’Connor’s books shout at readers that way.
Do you want to know something, though? The book has a pretty good reason to shout. Although it’s been months since I finally read the collection, it hasn’t quieted down. Moreover, I’ve grown appreciative of its company.
_Everything that Rises…_ was released after O’Connor’s death. The hallmark story leads a parade of nine others, a veritable Mardi-Gras of intellectuals, petulants, vindictives, intolerants, and misconceivers, all down a path toward redemption, and thankfully, all with their shirts _on_ (except for that one guy with the tattoo, of course).
“Theology–ugh. Stop saying ‘redemption’,” some readers holler. Fortunately, O’Connor’s theology is well-masked. In fact, I had to read her biography, look at her essays, and dig with a backhoe before I located any theology. But I found it. It was hiding there in plain sight, and once I saw it, I wondered that I had ever missed it. I had trouble locating her theology because O’Connor has a habit of flaying peoples’ minds to reveal their darker side. And when you flay somebody’s mind, well, to quote Lady Macbeth, “Who would have thought the old man to have had so much blood in him?” Wait now–before you shout “Violence–ugh. Stop saying ‘flay’,” I need to tell you about her work.
O’Connor uses no words of mystery. That woman was club-thumping blunt. If you prefer stories that wash down pleasantly with watercress sandwiches and Darjeeling, then you’d better find your authors elsewhere. However, if you need something that brands your soul, and if you want the burn to last a long, long time, then read this collection.
O’Connor was passionate about two things in her life (well, three things actually, if you count large domesticated birds, but that’s for another review): she loved her religion, and she loved the South. Her writing feels the effects of both. If the South provides the actual meat and potatoes of the story, then her Catholicism provides the salt, without which her stories truly might have been intolerable.
The South is not just a home for O’Connor. The south looms over her writing like a half-ton gorilla. But in a good way. Her region gives her work location, yes, but more importantly a sense of history, and of direction. She was fiercely unrepentant of her Southern heritage, at least in terms of its importance to her craft. Her collection of essays asserts that her Southern characters were grotesque because of their bad manners, yet to her, “bad manners are preferable to no manners at all.”
Her work is equally tempered by her fierce Catholicism. In this age, where the church itself is virtually anathema, readers may be surprised that O’Connor attended Mass nearly every day of her life.
O’Connor is unrelenting in her work to provide situations of redemption and grace to broken people, and just in case the reader accidentally misses her point, she makes her characters very ugly and her redemptions–well, the only word to describe an O’Connor redemption is violent. O’Connor’s God is not a bubbly, bearded Gnome who dances with pixies at lake’s edge. _Her_ God whomps you on the head with a plank, because _someone_ hasn’t been paying attention in Life 101. Pow! Redemption!
This concept may be difficult for Protestant readers, because we are often quick to identify grace as a gift from the God of mercy. We do well, therefore, to read this Catholic, who reminds us that grace is doled out by a God who is just. I guess I am telling you this because O’Connor’s characters don’t fall off cliff because it was determined that way–her characters fall because they are so fallen in the first place. They fall because of the inevitability of the character’s nature. Humankind, in O’Connor’s opinion, needs the occasional swift kick-in-the-pants to return them to a state of grace before God. Besides, is it not infinitely more pleasurable to watch the Coyote fall into the canyon when his hand-made Acme hang-glider collapses, than to endure the Care-Bears’ fight against the bad, evil meanies, with the power of good?
Robert Fitzgerald assembled a 25-page introduction to this work. Despite its length, Fitzgerald’s piece is probably the best biographical account on the market, and is certainly a useful look at the work it precedes. However, Fitzgerald, like too many writers of forewords, assumes too much knowledge of O’Connor’s works on the part of the reader. He supposes we have heard of Taulkingham, or of Ruby Turpin, or Hazel Motes. We will not encounter these people in the present work, and the extra names and plot summaries only get in the way. Fitzgerald is dead, though, so I guess he won’t be changing the introduction any time soon.
O’Connor’s works are audacious and skilled. Occasionally, the reader can spot the thorns popping through the seams of some of the stories, due to her untimely death. It is evident to the reader that a few of these stories needed more rubbing and polishing. Yet, one by one, O’Connor’s characters, depraved sons-of-guns one and all, limp through their metronome world until they are ultimately redeemed by their God. The intensity of reader’s experience does not slacken until the last page.
I think this explains why _Everything that Rises Must Converge_ still shouts at me. And it will shout at you, to remind you that you are fallen, too–“Hey stupid! Put down your pen and read me again!”