I read "A Good Man Is Hard to Find" by Flannery O'Connor to my class on Monday. It took about a half-hour. "The grandmother didn't want to go to Florida." What a great first line. The story zooms forth after that pronouncement. Flannery lingers but never stops, allowing landscape and sky to leak through, imitating what can't be said with words. As I read it I felt the pace kind of take over my mind. It's movement she's after in this story, a flashpoint in motion, and the vision comes from the speed being slowed down through translation: "The trees were full of silver sunlight," Flannery writes, "and the meanest of them sparkled." That's a jarring turn of phrase because in its elegant banality there is blissful and unnerving transfiguration. You know when the light in the trees gets mean you are on your way to something.
The whole sad show, as the family heads into danger, has a comic meanness to it that allows you to laugh without losing the seriousness of the journey. The grandmother, Bailey Boy, John Wesley, June Star, their feckless mother and the baby she carries -- they are all headed toward annihilation. The way they get there is a comic nightmare, but once they get to the hill after the car crash you begin to feel that sparkle turn into radiation. "The gaping mouth" of the woods across the road is just that. The Misfit just had to appear. No story without him, Flannery wants us to know. There's no use in trying to make a story out of the grandmother and her clan unless there's those gunshots in the woods. It would just be hundreds of miles of bitching and moaning and wanting and needing and mouthing off and slapping.
Everybody always goes to the very end to find the moment that matters most in "A Good Man Is Hard to Find." That scene when the grandmother gets shot, the falling action as The Misfit tells his henchmen, and us, that there is no real pleasure in this world, "only meanness." This time, reading it aloud, I found myself lingering on another scene, right after Bobby Lee and Hiram shoot Bailey Boy and John Wesley, Bobby Lee dragging Bailey Boy's shirt along like a souvenir:
The children's mother had begun to make heaving noises as if she couldn't get her breath. "Lady," [The Misfit] asked, "would you and that little girl like to step off yonder with Bobby Lee and Hiram and join your husband?"
"Yes, thank you," the mother said faintly. Her left arm dangled helplessly and she was holding the baby, who had gone to sleep, in the other. "Hep that lady up, Hiram," The Misfit said as she struggled to climb out of the ditch, "and Bobby Lee, you hold onto that little girl's hand."
It's chilling but also somehow a relief, that "Yes, thank you." It carries with it a grace that you can't really understand until you move through that moment when you are about to die, and you're treated with a sort of kindness and gentility by your killer. The mother and the baby up to that point in the story have been comic relief, but now, almost at the end, they become devastating angels. I almost got choked up reading that part aloud. I've read this story probably a thousand times, and each time it lets me know different things.
This time it was about that "Yes, Thank you." How exact and horrifying three little words can be.