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Book Of A Lifetime: Wise Blood, By Flannery O'Connor


I must have been reading a run of unsurprising novels because at some point in my early forties, 'Wise Blood' by Flannery O'Connor woke me up. Hazel Motes, the main character, carves a chasm through the book and I followed him through. I pursued Asa Hawkes, the blind preacher, and shunned Enoch Emery, the 18-year-old zoo-keeper obsessed with the preserved corpse in the town museum.

Motes's world was not mine but I got my bearings in Taulkinham, Tennessee - the City Forest Park with its bath house and FROSTY BOTTLE hotdog stand, the used car lots and yellow clapboard houses, the centre ablaze with glary lights on a Thursday evening when the shops stay open. I saw it through the eyes of Motes who returns home wounded and disillusioned, released from the army after the Second World War. Knowing no-one and with his former house abandoned and fallen into ruin, he stays in different lodging houses, starting off with Leora Watts who advertises "The friendliest bed in town! Brother."

He buys a rat-coloured car and a panama hat. Everyday life underpins the narrative; on the face of it, a hard luck story. But Motes can't abide the ordinary. He distrusts it, dissects it and comes at it sideways. He sees people with the old comfortable views as pariahs.

"Mrs Watt's grin was as curved and sharp as the blade of a sickle. It was plain that she was so well adjusted that she didn't have to think any more." The sentence is startling. Motes's straightforward trouble is that he is friendless, but he doesn't dwell on this. What preoccupies him is that, away from home, halfway round the other side of the world, he realised he didn't have a soul and never had had. The certainties of small-town, Bible Belt living and the faith he was brought up in are gone. He lashes out at a woman who tries to start a conversation with him on a train. "I reckon you think you been redeemed," he accuses. This is the first sign of his fierceness, his roaring against existence.

I knew immediately that this was a real novel and not a gentle read. How is it possible to forget what truly excites? But I had. Whether the reading doldrums were linked to my state of mind at that time, or to the books I had lately chosen, I don't now know. Sleepwalking happens. We take language for granted though it has the power to astonish. 'Wise Blood' was my mid-life crisis of reading; a reminder that fiction should be bold. I had been listening to pre-recorded messages and now a writer was speaking in my ear again.

O'Connor's creative method is in an intense visualising that begins in the heart. She attaches herself to her characters and won't let them go. She writes luminous sentences. Using realism and black comedy, she switched my imagination back on.

'By Battersea Bridge' by Janet Davey is published by Chatto & Windus