The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, Carson Mcullers.
Eric Clapton was interviewed once, about a popular song.
“I’m telling ya,” he said, shaking his head, “I wish I wrote that one.”
That sentiment – I wish I did that – has always been, for me, the highest praise for any endeavor. When I finished The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, that’s exactly what I thought.
It’s quiet. Nothing here makes me want to drive a Porsche or move to France. I don’t pine for a life of lavish parties and high-rises. But I do want to listen more, to connect with people on a deeper level. I want to tell my daughters I’m proud of them and help an older man or lady step onto the bus. The lead character is quiet too, deaf and mute, like my aunt, and McCullers makes this work. You hardly notice. These are just people living next door who have the same worries as you. No one cares. As a writer, though, it fascinates me that this man is at the center of the story. That McCullers make him so attests to her skill.
One girl stands out, though. Mick is fourteen and floats between tomboy and woman. I wonder how autobiographical Mick is, or how much of a wish she is. McCullers, roamed, too, when she was barely older than Mick. From Georgia, she moved to NY to study music but lost her school money on the subway. Unfazed, she determined to write and eked out a living in New York while studying. She returned to Georgia and was married. She and her husband, another writing hopeful, moved between Georgia and North Carolina and New York and back, taking turns as bread winner while the other worked on their writing. Mick is full of piss, vinegar, hope, and promise and moves steadily from a babysitting tomboy to a blossoming woman. How much of McCullers is in Mick?
It’s a Southern story with a Southern ethos. In this part of town, everyone is poor. Kids run rampant as ants and no parent cares. One lady, a neighbor to Mick, has aspirations which make her an ass. There is grace in being poor, and in knowing you are poor. These people take Jesus’ words to heart, “Blessed are the poor.” This isn’t the story of Scarlett O’Hara and the plantation. It’s not a big story of big people trying to stop an immovable machine they cannot stand in front of. It’s a story about getting by and about relationships. About knowing who you are. It’s a story about Georgia, with people McCullers grew up with, and here, she offers a slice of that for you to see.
The book fools you. Like a modern novel, there’s a faint but ominous foreboding that the reader knows leads to nothing good. But here, the foreboading is the constant drone of the always. Of monotony. Of the same thing day after day, year in and year out, always sweating from the heat.
Probably like McCullers’ neighbors growing up, the prose and sentiments are simple and uncluttered. McCullers caused a sensation when the book was published in 1940. She was only 23. It sat comfortably atop the charts, and McCullers wrote several more novels, all giving voice to those who are left without a voice. She was ill for much of her adult life and suffered from multiple strokes leaving her, by thirty, paralyzed on her left side. I cannot help but wonder how her pain helped her identify with brokenness.
Readers of other genres might find it painfully slow. It’s considered a classic of Southern Gothic and wallows in character, voice, and circumstance. If you read mostly about dinosaurs piloting space ships to fight wars in other galaxies, this might not be the book for you. Then again, it might be just what you are looking for. All that scaly breath makes a reader tired. It is a book, though, that can change the way to see things, how you see people, and how you respond to them.
I think that was McCullers’ purpose in all her writing. Here, she succeeded.
See the Carson McCullers page on Amazon here.
For another take on McCullers, read here at Biblioklept.
The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, 1968 movie staring Alan Arkin here.
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