Classics Club Spin #22: A Good Man is Hard to Find and Other Stories by Flannery O’Connor

Oh my goodness, how do I write about this short story collection? I feel enormous trepidation as I begin this post. This book is just really freakin’ weird. 😃 And dark. And twisted. And brilliant. But I was relieved to finish it, so what does that say?

Ten stories filled with mean people, ignorant people, unwanted visitors, negligent parents, gossips, hypocrites, killers, racists, xenophobes… sounds like a swell way to spend your reading time, right? Yet when I entered into each story (one a day, that’s all I could take) I couldn’t pry my eyeballs from it. The characters, despicable though they might be, were so fully realized and the stories so well constructed that I was hooked.

The collection starts with the title story, and it’s a shocker. A family of four and the grandmother are traveling to a Florida on a road trip, with the grandkids sassing off to their racist, annoying grandmother constantly, until she tricks the whole family into driving down this dirt road so they can see an old abandoned plantation that she “remembered.” (She gets the kids excited about it by craftily telling them that there is a legendary secret panel in a wall in which the family silver was kept.) When a chance accident happens on the deserted road and a band of sketchy dudes comes along on the scene, all hell breaks loose. It’s an eye-opening way to start off, to say the least.

Some of the stories are a bit more sedate but no less compelling. My favorite story was “A Temple of the Holy Ghost,”which features a precocious, mischievous young girl putting up with a weekend visit from her boy-crazy, older second cousins, Susan and Joanne. There’s a traveling fair in town, and two local boys are enlisted to take the girls and get them out of the house for an evening. The title of the story comes from an anecdote that the girls laughingly tell at dinner about part of their Catholic school education.

— if he should “behave in an ungentlemanly manner with them in the back of an automobile.” Sister Perpetua said they were to say, “Stop, sir! I am a Temple of the Holy Ghost!” and that would put an end to it.

When the girls come back from the fair they obliquely tell the child (we don’t learn her name) about something they saw in the “freak tent” that unnerved them.

The tent where it was had been divided into two parts by a black curtain, one side for men and one for women. The freak went from one side to the other, talking first to the men and then to the women, but everyone could hear. The stage ran all the way across the front. The girls heard the freak say to the men, “I’m going to show you this and if you laugh, God may strike you the same way.” The freak had a country voice, slow and nasal, and neither high nor low, just flat. “God made me thisaway and if you laugh He may strike you the same way. This is the way He wanted me to be and I ain’t disputing His way. I’m showing you because I got to make the best of it. I expect you to act like ladies and gentlemen. I never done it to myself nor had a thing to do with it but I’m making the best of it. I don’t dispute hit.” Then there was a long silence on the other side of the tent and finally the freak left the men and came over to the women’s side and said the same thing.

The girls explain that the “freak” was both man and woman but the child doesn’t understand what that means. She later has a vision as she goes to sleep that the “freak” was leading a church service and says they are a “Temple of the Holy Ghost.” Still later in church she again thinks of the “freak” and how they said that this was how God wanted them to be. It’s a quiet, oddly beautiful story, and I loved how the child could embody a kindness and acceptance towards the “freak” that the rest of the characters couldn’t seem to muster.

I’m glad I read this and glad that the Classics Club Spin landed on this selection. I know it’s a hard sell, but I do think this is worth the read. I have all sorts of questions about what O’Connor was like, why she wrote such dark, religious, tense stories. This is the kind of book I would love to have discussed in a classroom setting because I know that I’m missing some nuances and symbolism along the way. I rated it five stars on Goodreads but it’s not one I can call a favorite, simply because I am confident that I will never be inclined to read it again. If anyone has any biographical knowledge of O’Connor or thoughts about any of these stories, I’d love to hear them!

Format: Library paperback, 252 pages.

See my original Classics Club list here.

29 thoughts on “Classics Club Spin #22: A Good Man is Hard to Find and Other Stories by Flannery O’Connor

  1. She was brought up Roman Catholic in the deep south in the first half of the twentieth century, and started the “southern gothic” movement. The one I think about most these days is a long story called “The Displaced Person.” Is that one in this collection?

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  2. I’ve never read anything by her but am intrigued. And nervous. And am not sure?

    I’m SO interested in the southern gothic genre but am worried that I’ll feel icky. Does that make sense?

    I’m so glad that the classics club spin gods gave you such an interesting choice!

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  3. I absolutely love this collection and her other collection, Everything That Rises Must Converge. She is quite possibly my all-time favorite short story writer. She’s able to balance so much in these stories. She blends humor and horror so well, and her unlikable characters feel so real. “Temple of the Holy Ghost” is a favorite, and “The River” has always haunted me. Whenever I read her, I end up chewing over the stories for days and days.

    I have on my unread shelf a collection of her letters that I hear is very good. One of these days, I’ll get around to reading it

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  4. I haven’t tried her yet, but you make her sound very intriguing. When an author can make you admire her work without necessarily “enjoying” it, then she must be doing something right! Good pick from the spin and wow! You’re way ahead with the review! I’ve just started reading my pick… 😀

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  5. I’m currently reading a biography of O’Connor by Brad Gooch, and it sounds like her childhood in Georgia was both Christian and (to me) odd. She loved birds and was first famous for being on TV demonstrating that she’d taught her pet chicken to walk backward. There is this entire feeling that something is just a tiny bit off, but not unhappy, in the life of O’Connor so far in the bio.

    I own a book of her short stories and have plans to read it this year. My copy includes (I’m copying and pasting):

    The geranium —
    The barber —
    Wildcat —
    The crop —
    The turkey —
    The train —
    The peeler —
    The heart of the park —
    A stoke of good fortune —
    Enoch and the gorilla —
    A good man is hard to find —
    A late encounter with the enemy —
    The life you save may be your own —
    The river —
    A circle in the fire —
    The displaced person —
    A temple of the Holy Ghost —
    The artificial nigger —
    Good country people —
    You can’t be any poorer than dead —
    Greenleaf —
    A view of the woods —
    The enduring chill —
    The comforts of home —
    Everything that rises must converge —
    The partridge festival —
    The lame shall enter first —
    Why do the heathen rage? —
    Revelation —
    Parker’s back —
    Judgement Day —

    Okay, that’s a lot of stories. Each story, on average, would only be 17 pages, though.

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    1. Without my book in front of me, I recognize 8 of these titles from A Good Man. I’ll be interested in what you think of them! I need to read a biography and/or her letters soon, while the stories are fresh in my mind. But do I have the time? Ugh…

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  6. Is Flannery a major American author? It’s weird I’ve never heard of her, but then again, classics really aren’t a strength of mine. I can see why this book is so unnerving but still so good! You can’t say they are ‘enjoyable’ to read, but still absorbing!

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  7. Wow! What an intense sounding collection. I’m embarrassed to say I don’t know of Flannery O’Connor. After a quick Google search, I’m not surprised but I am saddened by this. I keep noticing how my education was so short of women. History, politics, reading, writing, science — it doesn’t matter. Very few women.

    I love short stories, so I’ll probably pick this up sometime. Can you label this book with a genre? I wonder if I can fit it into a book club… I can relate to wanting someone to help with the nuance!

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  8. Flannery O’Connor is one of my favorite authors of all time. She is quite dark, though, to be sure. Her worldview was definitely informed by her deep Catholicism and also by her illness (she had lupus). But she also had a very keen eye for her surroundings and the people in it. Having lived in the south most of my life–and twenty of those years in Georgia, not far from O’Connor’s home, I can tell you that her characters are not much of a stretch from reality, even today. Anyone who wants to understand the current political divide(s) in the US today would learn a lot from reading O’Connor’s fiction. I think she gets to the heart of how religion and violence are twinned in American society, and the hypocrisy that arises out of that alignment.

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  9. First of all, I’m so glad that you mentioned you were set to read this one, because it’s been on my shelves unread for more than twenty years. And after having read it, I pulled my high school English anthology off the shelf only to recognize that she did have a story in there, too, but we weren’t assigned to read it (and I never bothered on my own – we were always more likely to be assigned the English and Canadian authors…the other Americans, with two exceptions, weren’t assigned either IIRC) so it would seem that I’ve missed a lot of opportunities along the way.

    And, next, wow. My jaw was literally gaping open at the end of that first story. I had NO idea that her stories would walk this kind of line. They’re so delicately structured and methodically developed. And so strange and hard and tender. All at the same time. I just finished the collection a couple of nights ago. Like you, I really had to space them out. And I’m not sure if I’ll read anything else, but, if I do, I’ll have a better idea of what to expect. Meanwhile, I’m still reading a collection of letters and some biographical bits (and I do recommend that documentary film I mentioned previously) and it’s all just so…well, nobody can say that anything about her writing is boring, right?

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