This apocalyptic, gothic set of short stories was published in 1953. Written by American essayist and novelist Flannery O’Connor (1925-1964), A Good Man is Hard to Find (how many women are going to agree with that title?) offers dark and disturbing short stories. It’s a rather grimly fascinating, macabre take on American life and the human condition, which may appeal to the jaded misanthropes of this world.
O’Connor unfortunately developed the hereditary disease lupus and died in 1964 – she was aged only 39. Due to her short life, she only had two novels published. However, she was something of a short story specialist, revelling in the grotesque, imperfect, and Southern Gothic American style of writing.
A Good Man is Hard to Find
The eponymous short story opens proceedings. With its drawling nature and focus on a particular American vernacular, we have a small family headed by a father called Bailey and his mother taking his kids on holiday. At one stage, the mother becomes absorbed in a retrograde “back in my day” discussion with an older gentleman – the pair lament the collapse of society and how people were kinder in the past.
As if to demonstrate this, the family then bump into a mass murderer called the Misfit. This rambling sort, after taking the family captive, shoots them in cold blood. This is how the short story ends. As you can imagine, for the time (1953) this was highly controversial – the mother’s actions have provoked considerable scholarly attention, as she attempts to stop the bloodbath by appealing to his decency.
There are nine other short stories in this collection along these lines. Serial killers, greed, religion, and exploitation occur in rapid fire accounts of the worst of humanity. Characters are often forced through some difficult moral scenario, changing as a result (or just outright dying), savagery, but all underlined with a dark sense of humour and a comprehension of the absurdity out there.
The result? O’Connor’s focus on the dark and morbid makes for interesting reading – what’s more interesting is she utilises those themes to reveal unusual beauty and grace. This in the face of the grotesque, making it a warped appreciation of the world around us. There’s a heavy religious overtone to each story, too, which seems to represent the putative shift away from religious times of old towards a nihilistic future. That’s our reading of it, anyway.
As for the book – we weren’t exactly enthralled with the short stories, but note their continued critical acclaim. We can see many readers enjoying them a great deal. But we’re bemused by the extent some scholars and literary students have gone to studying the eponymous title, which for us was a clear cut case of a hoodlum doing some wrong. Perhaps it’s a good introduction to literature for young adults, so we’ve missed the point a tad.
Regardless, Truman Capote’s remarkable In Cold Blood (1966) details the psychological reasoning behind a mindless killing to the extent that slakes our morbid curiosity, so we’d encourage anyone genuinely interested in crime literature to head there as well. But O’Connor’s morose, and blackly comic, stories should still appeal to many readers, so don’t let us put you off.
Despite her brief life, O’Connor’s short stories have left a lasting impact on the short story scene. In America, she seems as highly regarded as Ryūnosuke Akutagawa in the East, the famed Japanese author considered a master in his country. You can hear O’Connor’s drawling take on her story above, which is just about audible – that recording will have been made circa 1955, so it’s no wonder the quality has dropped. But for her fans, it’s an essential recording for posterity.
In 2017, it emerged a film adaptation began works with Michael Rooker (of the Walking Dead, Guardians of the Galaxy, and Cliffhanger fame) set to star as the Misfit from the eponymous short story collection opener. That there is some good casting, although the details of the project remain limited. Watch this space! There was an adaptation in 1993 called Black Hearts Bleed Red, but this met with critical failure, so best of luck to Rooker with this new one.