Bro Jackson’s resident literary expert counts down his personal Top 100 list of greatest books. He’s not even including Dr. Seuss. Check out No. 100 here, No. 99 here, No. 98 here, No. 97 here, No. 96 here, and No. 95 here.
“You shall know the truth and the truth shall make you odd.” —Flannery O’Connor, “The Habit of Being”
For this quote alone O’Connor should probably be initiated into sainthood by the Roman Catholic church. She was a writer who stood alongside Carson McCullers and William Faulkner as the consummate “Southern writer.” She could just as easily be shoved into the “Catholic writer” category beside Evelyn Waugh and Graham Greene.
It would be easy to stop there, shoving her into either the category and sub-labeling it “grotesque gothic writer with penchant for the bizarre and fucked-up side of humanity.” Pigeon-holed by one of the greatest short stories ever written—”A Good Man is Hard to Find”—it can be difficult to see the forest for the tree—as it were—when discussing her work.
She died at the age of 39, having written only two novels at the time. The good news for readers is that one of those novels was “Wise Blood,” coming in at number 94 on my top-100 list. Even your cousin from Alabama—who writes letters to Nick Saban and squirrel hunts—is getting excited about this project now.
I’m not going to give you a plot summary since to list the eccentric characters and storyline here would take me more time than its worth.
Essentially what you need to know is that Hazel Motes, a discharged World War II veteran, has come home and owing to what he saw has become an atheist. He grew up the grandson of a preacher and salvation and its meaning is at the forefront of his mind.[ref]I realize now that this and the last book on my list, “The Satanic Verses,” have religion as one of their central themes. Maybe I need to go to church more.[/ref] Motes sets out to become a traveling preacher, explaining along the way that he has “wise blood,” or the innate ability to know what direction to take in life.
At its most basic levels, the novel is simply a nihilist interacting with goofy characters—a prostitute, Leora Watts; a teenage nymphomaniac, Sabbath Lily; and a bat-shit nutty zookeeper, Enoch Emery. But, as is the case with any writer worth reading, there’s a lot more going on then what’s on the surface.
You’ll have to forgive me as it has been years since I read this book. But I do remember that it was packed with symbolism. It reminded me a great deal of a Coen Brothers movie. Smashing you over the head with symbolism until you weren’t sure whether they wanted it to be serious or to be funny.
One of the key symbols, as pointed out in this succinct essay, is Motes’ Essex car. As stated in the essay, the car plays a pivotal role in the novel. “Indeed, the Essex, with its roles as home, pulpit, coffin, and metaphor for Hazel Motes himself, is the “driving” force of Wise Blood.”
Could the car be a symbol for our bodies, a transient vessel that cannot last forever? Or is it simpler, a nod to the materialism that plagues most men, hindering Motes from finding truth faith and salvation? This is the problem when reading O’Connor’s novel. Encountering so much in so few pages we are forced to question almost everything. As this Guardian article points out, it can be frustrating because some of O’Connor’s wordplay and puns are lost among the haze.[ref]See what I did there?[/ref]
“I like his eyes. They don’t look like they see what he’s looking at, but they keep on looking.”
Eyes and eyesight are another key motif in the novel. One of the first characters Motes meets is a “blind” preacher named Asa Hawks. Asa claimed that in the ultimate act of self-sacrifice, he took his own sight. Asa, however, might not be as blind we believe. The novel is littered with references to what we can see and what we can’t see, the blind and the, well, un-blind.
Tunnels. Tunnel vision. Blindness. Those striking blue eyes of a cop who pulls Motes and his car over near the end of the novel. Religion is based around the idea of “blindness.” Man is “blind” to God and since He is unseeable, it is faith that becomes the driving point behind Christianity.
I remember being so obsessed with this novel that I actually watched a Yale professor’s YouTube lectures on it. Needless to say, I can see why I wasn’t smart enough to go to an Ivy League school.[ref]Of course I haven’t done nearly as much coke as George W. Bush, so that would be a hindrance, too.[/ref] Again and again O’Connor poses theological questions to the reader and we are forced to try and answer them. The kicker is that she poses lots of question weaved between all the symbolism.
Stick to the basics
The best part about this book is the amount of ways it can be read and the amount of axioms that can be found inside it. You don’t need to be a Yale scholar to enjoy the book. Read from a straight-forward approach as a purely religious novel that seems to be asking what we can and can’t see in terms of faith, a novel exploring what it means to take literal Christian truths too far, you can thoroughly enjoy this novel.
“I feel that if I were not a Catholic, I would have no reason to write, no reason to see, no reason to ever feel horrified or even to enjoy anything.”
This comment, from a letter she wrote, probably sums up all we need to know about “Wise Blood.” This answers the central question of what she probably wanted to ask us. If there’s one thing Catholics are always wondering it has to be “What is faith?”
Sometimes we make it harder than it really is.[ref]That’s what she said.[/ref] I think the best way to read this novel is to read it as a book exploring morality and redemption and faith. At turns it’ll make your head spin and it’s packed with memorable characters. I suggest you stop reading this shitty overview right now and get to reading.