Heath Lowrance is the author of the cult novel The Bastard Hand and a prolific producer of dark and twisted short stories which you can find at Crime Factory, Shotgun Honey and Pulp Metal, or in his collection Dig Ten Graves. He blogs at PsychoNoir.
“There are all kinds of truth … but behind all of them there is only one truth and that is that there’s no truth.”
There’s a preoccupation with religion in the American South. It’s in the marrow of the land somehow, this blood and thunder, fire and brimstone notion of salvation. But it’s generally a pretty Protestant faith that dominates the southern states, so Flannery O’Connor was a bit of an anomaly. A Roman Catholic, her notions of faith were a bit more restrained and philosophically inclined. Also, a bit more resigned to the darkness inherent in the very concept of faith.
Her particular vision of salvation was laid out very nicely in her first novel, Wise Blood. In its way, it’s a defense of faith in a world where faith doesn’t seem to make any sense. It’s a deeply serious book, yeah. But it’s also a low comedy, Wise Blood is, with the blackest of humor seeping out of its pages like tar.
The story, in a nutshell: Hazel Motes is back home in Tennessee from WWII, a different man. His experiences have destroyed his faith in God and he’s now a confirmed and bitter atheist. So consumed is he by his hatred of God that he makes it his mission to spread a sort of anti-gospel, preaching on street corners and ranting at every opportunity. And yet he can’t shake his bitterness. He feels haunted by his former faith, and a Jesus that moved “… from tree to tree in the back of his mind, a wild ragged figure motioning him to turn around and come off into the dark where he might be walking on the water and not know it and then suddenly know it and drown.”
When Hazel hooks up with Enoch Emery, that’s when Wise Blood starts to become an exercise in the bizarre and grotesque. Enoch is a weird young man, working as a zoo keeper, who has this idea that he is a “wise blood”—that is, someone with an innate sense of the spiritual world and requires no spiritual guidance. Enoch falls in love with Hazel’s anti-gospel. The two of them cross paths with a preacher named Asa Hawks (who blinds himself with lye to avoid worldly temptations– supposedly), and his daughter Sabbath Lily (who ruins Hazel’s attempts to seduce her by proving to be a raging nymphomaniac). As the lives of these four characters become hopelessly entwined, setting off one bleakly comedic event after another, Wise Blood veers toward the surreal. You have a mummified dwarf. You have a creepy cop with weird blue eyes pushing Hazel’s car off a cliff for no reason. You have Enoch deciding that the key to salvation is dressing up like a gorilla. You have barbed wire and shards of glass in the shoes. And you have one of the most astonishingly funny and dark and emotional American novels ever written.
So most folks who know me know that I’m an atheist. I don’t push my non-belief on anyone, but by the same token I don’t hide it either. Why, then, is a novel that exists in defense of religious faith one of my top five novels of all time? Well, for one thing, I don’t require that a book adhere to my own personal philosophy for me to enjoy it. But more importantly, I love Wise Blood because, in its way, it’s a deeply existential story, with some of the most finely-drawn and weirdly relatable characters I’ve ever come across. O’Connor really makes us feel Hazel Motes spiritual pain. And it’s so darkly funny, illustrating the fine, fine line between tragedy and comedy better than just about any book I can think of.
“He had the feeling that everything he saw was a broken-off piece of some giant blank thing that he had forgotten had happened to him.”
– Heath Lowrance
The Criminal Classics series was prompted by a post which originally appeared at Crime Fiction Lover.