Saturday, June 19, 2010

Book Review: The Heart is a Lonely Hunter

Back when I taught high school, my school had a small collection of The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, by Carson McCullers. I'm assuming that some previous English teacher had required a class reading of the book. All I really knew about it was that it was considered by many to be a classic and it was written by a girl who was 22 years old.

Since I am always on the lookout for an interesting book to listen to while driving, I picked up McCullers' book several weeks back. I smiled when I recognized the narrator's voice as the same narrator for Recorded Books, LLC's Because of Winn-Dixie. Cherry Jones has a wonderful southern lilt and did an outstanding job with this narration, as well. My husband immediately recognized her as the police officer in Mel Gibson's movie, Signs, but others may recognize her from her role as the female president on the television show "24."

With 11 Cd's, the book seemed to take forever to get through. It was not plot driven, but did have rich, diverse characters. I felt annoyed with the many bits of endless political diatribe. I tried to remind myself that the book was published in 1940. Still, there were times when I wanted to give up on the book because I grew weary of the discussions of inequality.

I am glad to have read (listened to) the book, however. The most amazing thing to me was this young author's ability to capture language and create prose that literally rung like music. I read in the Amazon biography of McCullers that she enrolled in the Juilliard's School of Music, but due to a lack of funds, she ended up studying writing at Columbia University. She was passionate about music and it definitely came out in her words.

She was certainly able to draw the reader into a deep and abiding interest in her characters. Thus, I would encourage any would-be-writer to read this book for a strong example of really great prose and excellently drawn characters.

The book tells the story (lives, for often it seems the story isn't headed anywhere in particular) of four diverse individuals who idealize a deaf-mute man, by the name of John Singer. Mick Kelly is a 12 year old girl who seeks out Singer in the room where he boards with their family. Jake Blount is an alcoholic who sees in Singer's silence a strong wisdom that he likens to his (personally deemed) own. Biff Brannon owns and runs the local cafe where Singer and Blount often dine. Finally, Dr. Copeland is a negro doctor who befriends Singer and finds him to be the only white man he can tolerate and admire.

Singer behaves like the Pied Piper of Hamelin, leading all of these individuals along with him, while in reality each of them are imagining their own music as coming from Singer. As for John Singer, the only individual he really and truly counts as a friend is Spiros Antonapoulos, another deaf-mute who has been recently sent to an asylum.

In many ways, the book is depressing. The characters long for true connection, yet none of them seem to be capable of finding that. The troubles of our world, of government and racism, are loudly renounced without any glimmer of hope enunciated.

Yet, there were some genuinely funny moments in the book. My absolute favorite involved a brief interaction between the bar-keeper, Brannon, and the alcoholic, Blount. Brannon is desperately trying to draw out Blount in an attempt to figure out what keeps this ridiculous, yet educated, man tied down in their little mill town. He begins to ask Blount many questions. Finally, he proposes this, "If you could choose the time in history you could have lived, what era would you choose?"

Blount dryly responds, "If you had to choose between being a stiff and never asking another question, which would you take?"

Although this book won't appear on my favorite reads for the year, it was definitely one that will resonate in my mind for a while. It painted a clear picture of the human condition. The characters became part of my mental landscape.

Because I have adventurous boys, I don't think I will ever forget the scenario in this book where Mick's younger brother, Bubba, accidentally (or was it on purpose?) shoots his four year old neighbor in the head with a pellet gun. The girl's mother had hoped she would be another Shirley Temple. That one act alters his family's life, financially and emotionally, for the rest of time.

And now I'm off to go double check the security of Bryce's air soft guns!

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