Wise Blood by Flannery O’Connor is not an easy novel to approach. None of the characters are people many readers would find sympathetic. Their actions are more than a little bizarre, and their motivations are often difficult to fathom. While the plot contains many exciting events it’s not exactly suspenseful, and the conflict is not exactly clear, either. Still, Wise Blood, by Flannery O’Conner, is rightfully considered a masterpiece of American fiction. It’s not an easy book, but it is well worth the effort.
The panel on BBC Radio 4’s A Good Read recently agreed that Wise Blood should be read as a sort of comedy of manners, and I agree that reading it as a comedy is perhaps the best way to approach the novel. Two plot lines intersect through most of the book, that of Hazel Motes and Enoch Emory. Hazel has just left military service with a lifetime pension due to an unexplained injury. He arrives in a southern city intent on preaching the gospel of a new church; The Church Without Christ, he calls it. His new church will be based on the truth, that there is neither sin nor salvation, that Jesus was a liar, that there can be no blasphemy. He preaches in front of movie theatres as people leave, but gains no followers, much to his disappointment. Enoch Emory, an 18-year-old night watchman at the city zoo, meets Hazel and falls under the spell of his new church, although Hazel wants little to do with Enoch. Enoch thinks he has a special purpose sent to him by God to reveal the new Jesus, which happens to be the shriveled mummified body of an ancient human kept in the museum portion of the city zoo.
Hazel becomes obsessed with a blind preacher, who supposedly threw quick lime into his own eyes. The preacher and his overly sexual daughter, Sabbath, live in the same boarding house Hazel does. Eventually, the daughter moves in with Hazel and the preacher, whom Hazel has discovered is not really blind, skips town. While Hazel preaches his Church without Christ, Enoch plots to steal the mummy and deliver it to Hazel. Events spiral out of Enoch and Hazel’s control, neither ends well, no one in the novel does really, not even the mummy.
So how can all of this be a comedy? Whether or not a particular reader comes to see the book as a comedy will depend on how one reacts to certain scenes. For example, once Enoch has stolen the mummy, he wraps it up and takes it to Hazel’s boarding house. The blind preacher’s daughter, Sabbath, takes the package from him, as Hazel is sleeping. She goes into the bathroom where she can open the package undisturbed. Instead of being horrified by what she finds, she thinks the mummy is cute and treats it like a baby doll, forming what can only be considered a blasphemous Madonna and child tableau. Hazel, is horrified by the mummy and throws it out the window. Once he is rid of the mummy, Enoch’s story leaves Hazel’s for good.
Enoch becomes obsessed with Conga, the gorilla star of several B movies who is on a promotional tour of local theatres. Enoch is initially convinced that the gorilla is real, but after the man inside the gorilla suit curses Enoch out, Enoch plans to attack. He gains entry to the back of the gorilla’s truck, beats up the man and steals the suit. He removes all of his old clothes and puts on the gorilla suit, becoming a new man; he then starts attacking the women he finds in the park. If you think this if funny stuff, like I did, then Wise Blood is the book for you.
Wise Blood by Flannery O’Connor is clearly not a book for everyone, but I found it to be an enjoyable and rewarding read. It contains excellent writing and memorable, original characters, so I’m giving it five out of five stars. It’s going on my keeper shelf; I think I’ll probably come back to it again some day.
Wise Blood has a permanent place in my bookcase. While I have not re-read it in the years since this review was first published on my old blog, Ready When You Are, C.B., I still plan to. When I’m ready, the book will be there. If you haven’t read it yet, you should consider it. It’s a wonderful, haunting book.