Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Tuesday Night in Morningside Heights: Brad Gooch & "Flannery: A Life of Flannery O'Connor" at Book Culture

We fell in love with Flannery O'Connor's fiction just a few years after she died in 1964, in our "gap year" (we called it a nervous breakdown back then) between high school and college. Her stories tickled our funny bone like the Grandmother's story about her suitor who carved his initials, E.A.T., into watermelons did John Wesley's. They seemed magical back then, an entry into a world far removed from ours, comical and violent, absurd and profound. (Hey, we were young!)

Only in 1981, soon after we'd moved below the Mason-Dixon line did we encounter someone - a woman named Dixie at a party in Uptown New Orleans - who seemed shocked that we considered O'Connor's characters unbelievably grotesque. "All my relatives are like them," she said, though we oculdn't tell if she was bragging or complaining.

Over the decades we've read O'Connor's stories repeatedly, and by now, a zillion years later, we've probably gone over "A Good Man Is Hard to Find," "Revelation," "Everything That Rises Must Converge" and the others well over a hundred times. Just last Friday night we were teaching community college students "Good Country People," a story we never get tired of and know almost by heart.

Having managed to get more mediocre stories published than any writer worthy of stifling by universities, we sometimes get asked who our own favorite short story writer is. Assuming that nobody will blame her none for our fictional failures, we've always answered, without hestitation, Flannery O'Connor.

So we were happy on a rare night off this winter to get to the fabulous Book Culture bookstore on West 112th Street between Amsterdam and Broadway (at one corner of the block is the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, at the other the diner from Seinfeld) to see Brad Gooch read from and discuss his acclaimed new biography, Flannery: A Life of Flannery O'Connor.

Every time we are in Morningside Heights, we feel that we hardly get there. Back in the early 1970s, we hung out in the neighborhood a lot, and when we lived part of the year on the Upper West Side, we managed to be around Columbia University and vicinity a lot, accumulating 30 credits at Teachers College's computing in education masters program (we never got our degree because we kept taking stuff far afield from our requirements).

Brad Gooch, a professor of English at William Paterson University, first read Flannery O'Connor at a frat house just a block from where he was speaking tonight.

He earned his Ph.D. at Columbia although at the time we mostly knew him as a writer; in 1977, we reviewed a book of his poetry for an upstate literary journal, and a thirty years ago, before we developed a tapeworm, we put him in an article called "Some Young Writers I Admire" (along with Dennis Cooper, Peter Cherches, Miriam Sagan, Richard Peabody and Crad Kilodney) and Tom Whalen. Mostly we've seen Brad once every decade, most recently at the 1993 Miami Book Fair International, when we were presenting along with other Mondo Barbie contributors and he talked on his very shrewd biography of Frank O'Hara, City Poet.

We picked up Flannery this morning at the Leonard branch of the Brooklyn Public Library, where we were the third person to request a hold weeks ago, and are already a good way in and can say that the terrific reviews it's gotten are more than justified. (We kept our copy in its plastic library cover hidden in our briefcase tonight, not wanting to let everyone, most of all the author, know how cheap we are.)

Getting to Book Culture early to browse among their tables, where we see books that we're unable to find elsewhere, towards 7 p.m. we made our way to a folding chair upstairs, sitting in a crowd of about fifty, mostly older people, including some familiar literary names we shared smiled and nods with.

Brad was introduced by Sylvia Nasar, Columbia J-school professor and author of A Beautiful Mind , who met Brad while both were in residence at Yaddo, where she said they wandered the grounds together in the middle of the night unsuccessfully trying to raise Flannery's ghost.

Wearing a well-tailored brown suit and tieless, Brad began by quoting Flannery O'Connor on why a biography would elude her: "lives spent between the house and the chicken yard do not make exciting copy." He brought up some of O'Connor's extreme and complex characters who remain etched in reader's brain, like the Misfit or the Bible salesman who calls himself Manley Pointer. Similarly, O'Connor herself lived a life of depth and complexity. And clearly, she's still a fascination, having recently made Time Magazine's Short List of What's Hot.

Brad's prologue in the book, about a five-year-old Mary Flannery in Savannah making a Pathe newsreel for teaching her chicken to walk backwards, was also the prologue to his discussion of O'Connor's life. Self-possessed and glad for the public attention even then, the graceful perversity of her making the chicken into a kind of freak (Brad said it barely walks backward in the film footage) presaged her own manipulations of characters and her own public image, as well as her self-disparaging delight in celebrity (after some quasi-glamourous magazine spreads in the likes of Vogue, O'Connor compared herself to "Roy Rogers' horse and Miss Watermelon of 1955").

Going on to discuss her early life in Milledgeville, where she and her mother Regina moved after the death of her father from lupus, Brad set the scene nicely, moving from her early cartooning - her first serious career goal was to be a political cartoonist - to her "early escape" to Iowa and her initial conversation with the Writing Workshop's Paul Engle, who couldn't understand Flannery's Southern accent and made her write down her request to transfer from the journalism school. When Engle read her stories, though, he clearly understood her talent.

Brad discussed her life in Iowa - the returning WWII vets on G.I. Bill who made up the majority of writing students didn't quite "get" Flannery's work, but she gained respect and recognition from the "three-name" Southern writers (Robert Penn Warren, John Crowe Ransom) passing through - and her time at Yaddo, and friendships with Robert and Sally Fitzgerald and Robert Lowell and Elizabeth Hardwick. She seemed happy to be a third wheel, though she never could quite remember her friends' children's names.

Eventually lupus strikes, Flannery goes home to Milledgeville and Andalusia, where she lives with her mother Regina in a very complicated web of deep love, need, some hostility and a lot of bemusement (for months Regina orders that no one tell Flannery of her diagnosis but she sensed it and seems almost relieved to hear the truth).

Most of us who know anything of O'Connor associate her with the constricted life at Andalusia - as a rookie writing teacher a generation ago I always quoted her remarks about sitting in front of her typewriter from nine to twelve regardless of whether or not she was able to produce a word - but Brad showed that she was far from being a recluse, meeting visitors, writing tons of letters (like us and many young writers, Brad was knocked out when The Habit of Being came out in the late 70s, but there's far more correspondence than appeared in that Sally Fitzgerald-edited book, some of it still being held back by the family), getting out when she could.

This prodigal Southern daughter loved mean gossip and had pretty primitive views on race, though tonight Brad seemed to soft-pedal her position as audience members discussed how she never condescended to make her "Negro" characters plaster saints; in the book, more of her blatant racism is documented. (For our mostly African American students, this has always been a problem with O'Connor, whatever Alice Walker's famous essay speaks to.)

The extended question-and-answer session after Brad's initial talk and take on O'Connor's life was lively and interesting.

There were discussions of his access issues, the letters from and to Erik Langkajer (we're particularly interested into how their relationship plays out in "Good Country People"), O'Connor's "Irishness" or lack thereof, her attitudes toward Jews and her brief stay in Manhattan, violence and humor in O'Connor's work, the severity of her illness on a day-to-day basis, her relationship with Betty Hester ("A" in The Habit of Being letters; those of us who thought there was some sort of lesbian undercurrent there were apparently off the mark), her theological readings and her late interest, circa Vatican II, in ecumenism, and the unanswerable "What if she had lived?" (She'd be 84 in a couple of weeks.)

Sylvia Nasar asked the last question - did Flannery O'Connor remind Brad of Joyce Carol Oates? (answer: yes, Oates is probably the closest writer to her in her conventional demeanor and appearance and the wildness and violence in her fiction) - and people lined up to talk with Brad and get the book autographed.

Having been accused of defacing a Brooklyn Public Library book in the 1970s when we returned a copy of Fear of Flying with Erica Jong's autograph (our friend, now the literary agent Linda Konner, had borrowed the book from us and seen Jong in the street) and still not wishing to be outed as a cheapskate, we instead browsed downstairs and headed for the IRT.

Brad's book is indeed a great read, although we have to admit it that it makes us like O'Connor a lot less as a person. We often think of Isaac Bashevis Singer's remark about how, though he revered Tolstoy, he wouldn't walk across the street to meet him. That's why we never talked to Singer in the 1980s, though we'd see him seats away from us many evenings in the 1980s, at the diners along Broadway around 86th Street or at Danny's in Surfside, when we lived near each other in both the Upper West Side and Miami Beach.

We wouldn't walk across the street to meet Flannery O'Connor and wouldn't want to know her. But knowing her through Brad Gooch's excellent biography is fascinating, and knowing her through her fiction is a wonder.

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