A Good Man is Hard to Find, by Flannery O'Connor

I'm just going to talk about this one story, though I am working my way through a collection of all of O'Connor's stories. One of my book clubs reads short stories, and this was one of the two for July. I hadn't read it since my schooldays, so it was interesting to go back and take another look.

It opens with the grandmother trying to persuade her son, Bailey, to take their vacation in East Tennessee instead of Florida. She summons arguments such as the children's previous visits to Florida and the reports of an escaped criminal called the Misfit who is said to be headed there. Bailey has little to say for himself, but the family does leave for Florida the following day.

First published in 1953, the story presents the family—Bailey, his mother, his wife and two children—as country bumpkins. The grandmother chatters incessantly about this and that, a habit which probably contributes to Bailey's gruff silence. His wife, whose name we never learn, has a face like a cabbage and barely speaks. Two of the children, John Wesley and June Star, don't seem to have ever been disciplined and are rude to everyone, while the third is just a baby. I bristled a bit at this stereotyping of rural southerners as dull and drifting through life, though I recognise the difficulty of shading characters with complexity in a short story. And, as one member of my book club pointed out, further detail about them is unnecessary to the story.

Only the grandmother is fleshed out. She considers herself a lady and makes a point of dressing properly for the drive in a navy suit and matching straw hat, trimmed with violets. After their lunch of barbecued sandwiches at The Tower, she ends up causing an accident, and the family does indeed meet up with the Misfit and his two cohorts. The Misfit is the other character who is presented in full. He is a brutal yet thoughtful man, who even as a child constantly asked about life and why things were the way they were. The grandmother deploys every argument she can think of to prevent the Misfit from killing her silent family. Most of the arguments have to do with religion and trying to persuade the Misfit that he is a good man and a good Christian. It is only at the very end that she sees him as a person, recognises the humanity in him, and responds to it.

One member of my book club thought the story was about which of the two was the better Christian and more deserving of Heaven. Certainly the two are held up as contrasting ways of being in the world, but I thought the story concentrated more on which was the better person. It asks how you recognise a good man or woman. One may be a Christian and one a criminal, but that superficial distinction is not enough. The real differentiator is the questioning. Only such deep thinking can open your mind and lead you to question the authority of those handing down the rules. Only critical thinking can enable you to recognise the humanity of The Other and to see beyond the facile friend/enemy divide that makes states build walls to keep The Other out, whether that Other is a Mexican immigrant, a Palestinian laborer, or a convict.

But those who run our society don't want that. They want obedient drones who think what they are told to think. The title comes up in a discussion the grandmother has with the proprietor of The Tower about how much better things were in the old days. Nostalgia is easily manipulated, as our politicians have shown us by getting us to believe in some mythical past when everything was better. I've often wondered if the American ideal of liberty and democracy ever really existed, even limited to a select group as it was in the past. I wonder if people in the agrarian past were more likely to think critically and question what they were told, a skill that was lost when Ford's assembly lines and associated control by the clock took over. Coincidentally, I'm reading a novel set in a small English village prior to the Industrial Revolution. I'll write about that next week.

Of course the danger is that such a person, a person who actually thinks and questions, might choose to ignore the rule of law and become a criminal, a murderer, a Misfit. That is the ambiguity that we are left with, as we try to sort out what makes a good man.

Not Dead Enough, by Peter James

Detective Superintendent Grace is called out to the brutal slaying of the wife of a successful entrepreneur. The two were a golden couple, wealthy, golf club committee member, Rotarian. The prime suspect is, of course, the husband, Brian Bishop. Evidence against him mounts. At the same time, Grace is distracted by a reported sighting of his wife, who has been missing for nine years, and the resulting difficulties with his new girlfriend, Cleo.

If you like thrillers, you'll enjoy this book. The pacing is excellent, and there are many twists and turns. Unfortunately, I'm not fond of thrillers, so shame on me for not looking more carefully when selecting this book. I also don't like horror stories, so being in the heads of the women being attacked did not add to the story for me.

The narrative moves around placing us in several different heads. Our attention is divided between Grace, the murderer, the husband (who may or may not be the same person), the various victims, and a down-and-out drug dealer named Skunk. Maybe my brain just isn't agile enough anymore, but I found the constant diversion of attention distracting. It may be personal preference again, since I like to discover clues along with the detective.

However, local color of Brighton and Hove is good, and it is interesting to see the author explore the psychology of various characters. He does a good job with many of them—Grace's newly separated partner Glenn Branson, Grace himself—but Grace's borderline alcoholic and sex-obssessed girlfriend, Cleo, didn't ring true to me.

Writers can always break the rules if they have a good reason. In describing a place, writers are advised to choose one or two details that reinforce what you're trying to achieve with the scene. Yet, in describing Brian Bishop's arrest, James gives us everything: Bishop's objections to having his Blackberry and reading glasses taken away, how he felt about removing each item of clothing, exhaustive detail about the cell's appearance down to the material making up the washbasin. What the author achieves with this is to bring us fully into the baffled unreality of a person arrested and placed in a cell for the first time. It was interesting to explore how it would feel to be arrested, and I can see why the author wanted to follow Brian into that experience.

Brilliant, but not particularly important to the story, and of course gives a lot away, unless perhaps the man has multiple personality disorder. This kind of clue, added to the insight from the other characters' minds, meant that I saw the end coming way too soon, though I did keep listening to see how we got there. The themes of obsession and revenge are fertile ones. The author could have dug a bit deeper here, but perhaps I am asking for too much from a thriller. Maybe a thriller just needs to be a roller coaster ride, in which case this book succeeds just fine.

The Glass Room, by Simon Mawer

One of the perennial questions writers tend to rehash is whether or not to create an outline before starting to write. Many writers proudly announce that they have no idea where their stories are going when they begin; they follow where the story takes them and claim that this technique gives their work spontaneity and emotional depth. Other writers create quite detailed outlines and then proceed to follow them. I recently attended a workshop led by a successful author who mapped out her novels scene by scene and, posting this blueprint over her desk, checked off each scene as she completed it. The advantages she mentioned included a solid structure for the book and the freedom to jump around and work on any scene she felt like. Most writers, including myself, fit somewhere in between. I create an outline but feel free to revamp it as I go along. I stay open to the idea that the story will take off in a direction I hadn’t anticipated.

This book, which I so looked forward to, reads as though the author adhered to his outline too faithfully. It is a beautifully structured book, one of those novels that follows some artifact, like a violin or a manuscript, across the years as it passes from one set of hands to another. In this case, it is a house, a modern house built in Czechoslovakia in the 1920s by newlyweds Liesl and Viktor, a Gentile and a Jew. Their house is to have the clean lines and austere palette of the Bauhaus. An abstract house, the architect calls it, a house for the future based on the ideal of reason and the possibility of perfection. A house that does away with all the fustian of the Victorian Age that brought the tragedy of the Great War.

Of course we all know what is coming. That is one of the flaws in the author’s plan. One member of my book club said that she could hardly bear to go on reading knowing what was waiting around the corner. For me, if you’re going to bring Hitler and the Holocaust into your book, you’d better write a darn good story, not only because they’ve been so overdone, but because they seem to me the hallmarks of a lazy writer, coming as they do with their own built-in drama, their guaranteed heartbreak. It can be done—Anne Michaels succeeds brilliantly in Fugitive Pieces —but it is not easy. I think Mawer comes close, but ultimately fails to meet the challenge.

I found it a cold book; some members of my book club agreed while others loved the book. I enjoyed the book on a cerebral level. For example, I appreciated the masterful architecture of the story. As one person pointed out, literary ironies abound: a transparent house that is full of secrets, a woman who blinds herself to what is going on and eventually loses her sight. Part of the problem is the structure. As the house passes to other hands, we lose the people who have started to interest us and are given a whole new set of characters to get to know. Then it happens again. Perhaps that is the author’s intent, that we should not care what happens to the characters and all that Romantic nonsense. But I found myself thinking of Storm Jameson’s memoir that dealt with this period and was so much more moving. The betrayal of Czechoslovakia must count as one of England’s most terrible crimes. Here it is acknowledged but is only another example of passion trumping reason.

Another flaw for me, and this is just personal taste, is that I am so bored with stories by middle-aged men about middle-aged men who are justified in cheating on their wives. With all the passions to choose from, especially during this period of national fervor and lingering grief, it seems odd to go back to the same plot device over and over.

I loved the first scene, when an elderly Liesl returns to the house after decades in the U.S. Almost completely blind, she yet walks unassisted, the house so much a part of her that its spaces and scents do not have to be parsed for her to know where she is. I have a house like that in my past, one that appears in my dreams, that I can walk through step by step, calling up the smell of each room, the sound each window makes, the rough texture of each wall. Now there’s a passion you don’t see very often. It is more than love; it is immersion, and Mawer captures it perfectly. Many scenes in the story are beautifully done and, though the ending falls a bit flat, I am still glad I read the book.

East Wind, Rain, by Caroline Paul

Shortly after the attack on Pearl Harbor, a Japanese Zero, its gas tank hit, crash-lands on the small island of Nihau. The Hawaiians who live there know nothing of the outside world, unaware even that a war is going on. Although they are only a few miles from Kauai, the paternalistic haole owner of the island, Aylmer Robinson, carrying on his father's tradition, has forbidden newspapers, telephones, radios and visits from the outside world. He even discourages literacy and the English language in an attempt to protect the islanders, childlike and innocent in his view, from the wickedness of the outside world.

Therefore, the Hawaiians welcome the young pilot, patching his wounds and singing for him, though Howard Kaleohano, the man who found him, has, almost accidentally, removed the pilot’s gun and papers. While they fear his anger at finding a stranger on Nihau, they want only for the godlike Mr. Robinson to come and deal with the intruder. In mutual incomprehension, the pilot and the islanders crowded into Howard’s house talk past each other, until the elderly Japanese beekeeper, Shintani, is fetched. He listens to the pilot speak, but backs away saying that he does not understand the dialect.

The call goes up to fetch Yoshio Harada, a nisei hired by Mr. Robinson to run the ranch house. Though born on Kauai where half the population was of Japanese descent, Yoshio has suffered all his life, but especially during a stint in California, from the humiliations and abuses of racial prejudice. Only on Nihau does he feel that he has finally landed among people who accept him for who he is. This comfortable life is thrown into chaos when he is brought before the pilot, who tells him that the Japanese have destroyed Pearl Harbor. Yoshio comes to believe that the Japanese have taken the entire island and gone on to invade Kauai, with little Nihau being next. He struggles to decide which course of action will best protect these people whom he has come to love.

Paul tells the story, which is based on true events, in lusciously simple prose, capturing the characters, their dilemmas, and the hard beauty of the island. Yoshio’s conflicting thoughts and motivations are particularly well-presented. I found each of his disastrous steps perfectly believable. The pilot, too, a mere boy, is vividly drawn, as he is presented with a conflict between his simple belief in obedience to the Emperor and his desire to go home to his girlfriend. I loved his boyish enthusiasm when Howard teaches him to surf. I closed the book overwhelmed once again with the wreckage that war leaves in its wake, even is such a remote corner as Nihau. The hysterical response to the attack on Pearl Harbor, which Paul captures so well, is a grim reminder of what has happened in this country over the last decade.

I found myself thinking about paradises. Robinson, a devout Christian, believes that innocence—which he understands to be ignorance—is the chief characteristic of paradise. After all, it was eating of the Tree of Knowledge that got Adam and Eve tossed out on their ears. This is how he justifies his isolation of the population on the island he owns. While his paternalism is, of course, despicable, I wondered if the idea held any merit. After all, when my children were little, I tried to be careful in feeding them knowledge of the world’s evil, enough to protect them but not enough to give them bad dreams.

Yet for me, ignorance is the opposite of paradise. Even as a small child, I hated not knowing what was out there. The huge black holes in my understanding of the world terrified me, and I felt as though I lived in one of those ancient maps, where the earth is a small flat island, surrounded by huge seas that eventually cascaded off the edge of the world.

Knowledge gives us the ability to know what is out there. It enables us to think critically about what we are told instead of simply accepting everything at face value. It keeps us from being the willing pawns of men like the Emperor and Mr. Robinson. My paradise is not a lost one; it is one that I enter further into every day, with every new thing that I learn.

I hope many people read this novel, a small story, perhaps, of a handful of people trapped in a dilemma not of their choosing, but a story that has deeper resonances and a satisfying conclusion.