I often come across books that are marketed as remarkable achievements for their young authors – Chris Paolini’s Eragon, Zadie Smith’s White Teeth – but such books always leave me thinking, “Pretty good for someone that age,” instead of just “Pretty good.” I’ve now found an exception.
Carson McCullers wrote The Heart is a Lonely Hunter when she was 22 years old, and there is no trace whatsoever of immaturity or short life experience anywhere in this book. It is filled with a deep sensibility of isolation and alienation, of spiritual voids and societal oppression. It seems to me that given her understanding and empathy for all of the characters around whom the novel revolves, McCullers would have to have been black and white, exalted and condemned, religious and irreligious, hopeful and hopeless, a witness to tragedy, a widow and a widower, a member of the underclass, a holder of a Ph.D. in literature, a mother, a father, and a drunk. Few authors ever show this level of understanding of the human condition; McCullers did it at an age when many authors are busy writing their theses.
The Heart is a Lonely Hunter dissects the lives of five people in a small Southern town that is forever teetering on the precipice of financial ruin: Mick Kelly, a world-weary twelve-year-old girl whose family is squeaking by; Jake Blount, an angry, alcoholic drifter; Biff Brannon, the town’s bartender, who becomes a widower early in the book; and Dr. Copeland, an educated black man whose atheist/Marxist views and uncontrollable temper have alienated him from his own children. The fifth man, John Singer, is a deaf-mute whose life partner (it’s not made explicit whether the two are homosexual, but that detail is irrelevant – their relationship is that of a married couple) loses his marbles and is committed to an asylum. Singer becomes the somewhat-willing audience for the private thoughts of the other four characters, often responding with nothing more than nods and smiles, occasionally writing down a more detailed answer, and sometimes saying nothing at all. Is he a priest receiving confessions? A God or Jesus figure? Or the personification of an uncaring world? McCullers gives hints but no firm answers to these questions or to the question of what the other characters symbolize, leaving just enough room for the reader’s imagination and for a host of differing interpretations of her work throughout the ensuing years.
McCullers also had an unusual gift for prose and sits as a sort of bridge between the lyrical but difficult style of Faulkner and the plain but still sparkling text of Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. Her words are seldom superfluous, yet her descriptions are evocative, especially when discussing the thoughts or feelings of characters, as when one of the five characters above gains some measure of emotional advancement towards the novel’s close:
For in a swift radiance of illumination he saw a glimpse of human struggle and of valor. Of the endless fluid passage of humanity through endless time. And of those who labor and of those whoâ€”one wordâ€”love. His soul expanded. But for a moment only. For in him he felt a warning, a shaft of terror… he was suspended between radiance and darkness. Between bitter irony and faith.
I could see a criticism of The Heart is a Lonely Hunter‘s plot as thin. Very little happens in the book to move things forward, and there’s nothing to resolve at the end; the book’s climax is a little out of nowhere, with one event setting off a trigger of smaller events, petering out towards the story’s conclusion. However, the lack of narrative greed doesn’t stop the book from flowing because McCullers’ prose is so strong and her characters so well-developed. It’s a remarkable achievement for an author of any age.
If you’ve already read The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, Richard Wright wrote an excellent review in New Republicwhen it was published, but if you haven’t read the book, bear in mind that his review contains significant spoilers.