A Good Hard Look Is Too Pretty
As someone who admires and has taught the writing of Flannery O'Connor, I was excited to get my hands on Ann Napolitano's fictional account of her life and the lives of inhabitants from her hometown of Milledgeville, Georgia. A Good Hard Look starts out describing the squalling of O'Connor's brazen peacocks the night before a wedding. These creatures are a force of nature throughout the novel, never scared, willing to trample the ground and disturb the peace. Not unlike the writing or personality of Flannery O'Connor.
An omniscient narrator visits one of five characters in each chapter of the book: the New Yorker, Melvin, who has come to marry his southern belle; Cookie, his wife, who is always off in a flurry to another committee meeting; Lona, an aimless woman, who smokes pot as an antidote to her loveless marriage; Joe, the depressed teenager who falls in love with her; and Flannery, the ill writer who makes everyone just a little uncomfortable.
While O'Connor's writing is sharp, witty, and raw, its message not always easy to decipher, Napolitano's voice is hesitant, almost scared of what she may uncover about the characters. Nowhere do we see in plain sight the dark underbelly of desire and jealousy, of anger and resentment and rage. All humans have it, but Napolitano prefers instead to paint the town with an impressionist brush so that all is fuzzy and distant. We watch these characters with an easygoing detachment, even when tragedy strikes.
Everything is in the right place in Ann Napolitano's second novel, so pristine, in fact, it resembles Cookie's guest bedroom, where the furniture and windows are adorned in pure white. Just as white fades into yellow, or in the case of this book, becomes blood-red when a murder occurs, something deeper and more profound is missing from A Good Hard Look. If it weren't set in the 1960's, I'd say everyone in Milledgeville is on Zoloft. But even the dramatic decade of the 60s gets lost amid Napolitano's painstaking descriptions, poetic language, and lack of humor. I suspect that a good hard look comes like a flash and passes in an instant, and might fit better inside the genre of short story rather than a 326 page novel. These looks are what Flannery O'Connor was so good at---the harsh, piercing eyes which jump out at the reader from every page. Napolitano's characters, I fear, will stay in their book forever.