A Good Hard Look: Why You Need to Be a Southerner to Write About the South (SPOILERS!)
"...anything that comes out of the South is going to be called grotesque by the northern reader, unless it is grotesque, in which case it is going to be called realistic." -Flannery O'Connor.
Even though I live only a few hours away from Millegeville, Ga., the town where O'Connor grew up and fictionalized in her novels and short stories, I've never been there, nor have I read much of O'Connor.
As other reviewers have noted, this book stays with you. In many ways, Napolitano tries to emulate O'Connor's raw style of characters. Just as you settle in and get to know someone in the book, something terrible and unexpected happens that throws you.
The book follows an ensemble of characters in Milledgeville in the early 1960s. Melvin Whiteson, a wealthy New Yorker, moves to the rural town to marry Cookie Himmel, the town's former beauty who has been unhappily living in New York City for the past two years. At the wedding, Cookie flips out when she sees Flannery O'Connor, which intrigues Melvin.
Flannery is living on her mother's farm, Andalusia, and dealing with advanced stages of lupus. She's struggling to finish a novel while caring for her menagerie of birds, which includes a large flock of peacocks. At the wedding of Cookie and Melvin, she sarcastically promises a peacock to Cookie as a present.
Curious about Milledgeville's most famous resident, Melvin sets out to collect the promised peacock and ends up befriending Flannery behind his wife's back. Melvin is mystified as to why his wife hates Flannery so much and keeps their friendship a secret.
Meanwhile, Cookie is determined to become one of the next generation of leaders of Milledgeville and sets out to build the perfect home. Together, she and Melvin's actions set off a course of events that have devastating repercussions for the entire town.
Napolitano's plot is unpredictable and the book sucks you in, but that didn't make me like it nor want to recommend it.
As the adage goes, you should write what you know. Napolitano makes it clear that she does not know the South and ironically proves the O'Connor quote above.
In an interview with Paula McLain, author of The Paris Wife, Napolitano admits she really doesn't know much about Millegeville or O'Connor's world:
"I was raised in New Jersey and live in New York. When it became clear that Flannery was part of the book, I flew to Atlanta, rented a car and drove to Milledgeville. I visited Andalusia, her farm (which is now a museum) and walked all over town. I was only there for about thirty hours, but that visit was crucial. Milledgeville had to be real to me, so I could make it real for the reader. Sitting on Flannery’s front porch, and smelling the air there -- I don’t think I could have re-created her world without spending that time in her space."
30 hours? I grew up in the South. I currently live in the South. My family has lived in the South for hundreds of years, and this culture and region still baffles me. How could someone attempt to explain the nuances of such a complicated region with such a complicated writer by only spending a few hours in O'Connor's hometown?
Napolitano understood this. In another interview, she shares how she told a friend from Alabama that she was writing a book set in the South. Napolitano tells the Jackson Clarion-Ledger (MS):
"When I showed the first draft to one of my closest writer friends, who happens to be from Alabama, she raised an eyebrow and said, 'Really? You're going to write about the South?' She meant it as a challenge."
Had the book only focused on O'Connor rather than the entire town, it might have succeeded. However, the town of Milledgeville and how it contrasts to the exaggerated towns in O'Connor's writing is the crux of the novel.
To write about the South, you simply have to be from the South. It has to flow through your blood and occupy your soul. You have to be able to simultaneously laugh, criticize and defend this part of the country. You have to understand that, "because my grandmother did it" is a perfectly legitimate justification. You have to understand the wrecked and difficult history in this region but still appreciate the beauty of its surroundings and the depth and color of its people. You have to understand that the South is a living, breathing creature that is wrapped up in tradition yet is changing, sometimes willingly and sometimes not at perplexing speeds. You have to understand how a region can commit so many mistakes, yet still have grace and forgiveness for it and try to heal. To be a Southerner is a frighteningly complex situation that is frequently glossed over by deep-fried food and syrupy accents.
Successful Southern writers, such as Kaye Gibbons, Sue Monk Kidd or Rebecca Wells, get this. Their books are sad and depressing. I've never read one without crying. However, they are layered. Characters are complex. They make mistakes, but you understand them. You feel for them. The characters become friends to whom you keep returning. They have depth along with the Southern kookiness that mesmerizes Hollywood.
In some ways, Napolitano seems to dance around the edges of this concept. In one passage Flannery is struggling for freedom and secretly takes a drive (something her mother didn't want her to do because of her lupus). Napolitano writes:
"Flannery studied the empty street. She knew this town inside and out. She knew who lived in nearly every house. She knew every stack in the library; where the teenage boys hid their dirty magazines, and where the mayor liked to sit and snooze behind his newspaper. She knew the nicks and wobbles of every pew in her church. She knew which hymnals were missing which pages. She knew a lot. Her brain was crammed with regional data.
"What good was the information, though? What use was it? All it did was make her heart feel like it was breaking. The details were nothing but tools for her writing and her writing was barely propping her up, barely keeping her recognizable to herself. She could stare down every person in this town and still feel herself fade away. God had been more than a support to her; he had been her greatest challenger. He had demanded, every day, that she live to her potential. She had both savored that pressure and struggled under it. She had depended on it; she had used it to shape her life."
When bad things happen to the characters in A Good Hard Look, it doesn't feel as though it was the natural forces of life sometimes causing people to struggle or have pain. It felt forced like the author knew she wanted to write something deep and edgy so something bad had to happen in that exact spot. This forced drama is predictable and frustrating for the reader.
In many ways, I identified with both Flannery and Cookie. Both characters spent years living outside of Milledgeville, which made them different than any other citizen in town. They understood that the world is different than their small town and didn't assume that just because it existed a certain way in Milledgeville didn't make it normal. This knowledge changes you and sets you apart when you move back home after living in a big city or a different part of the country.
It's different to return home. Unlike someone new, you're still an insider. You get the way that the town flows and how things work, but you see it differently. People think that you are special or smarter or better because of your experiences outside of that community. Those experiences set you slightly apart and always will. However, how you react to those experiences determines how your life in the small town will be.
This is how it went for Cookie and Flannery. Cookie came home determined to fit in and succeed. She understood how to use her uniqueness as power and worked hard to be a leader in the community. At the height of the book, she's about to accomplish her goals when everything falls apart.
Flannery is different. She probably never fit in as a child and doesn't as an adult living there. However, she also understands how people from the outside view the South and towns like Milledgeville. If she wrote about them accurately, no one would look at her work. People from the North expected exaggeration, so that's what she gave them. However by doing this, she ostracized her neighbors and made everyone wary of her. Her success came at the price of fulfilling the stereotypes.
Somehow in all of this, Napolitano lost her way. By writing about O'Connor, she proved O'Connor's point about Northerners and the South. People from the North won't be able to accurately write about the South because they expect the grotesque. Had this book been written by someone who grew up below the Mason-Dixon line, it would have been completely different. It would have probably been just as disturbing but far more complex and subtle.
A Good Hard Look did make me curious to learn more about O'Connor and her life in Milledgeville. Since I'm only four hours away from Andalusia, I'm looking forward to taking a weekend trip out there and exploring O'Connor's world.