Dispatches | May 14, 2013

During the month of May, The Missouri Review will highlight a single short story to help celebrate National Short Story Month. We’ve asked a diverse group of readers and writers to participate by sharing a short story that demands to be read. Today’s blog post comes from writer Ron MacLean.

It sounds like a cheap joke: an arrogant young woman has her wooden leg stolen by a backwoods Bible salesman she has tried to seduce. But, to paraphrase Flannery O’Connor, you can’t shorthand a good short story. The pleasure – the genius – is in the details. The unfolding human interaction.

What O’Connor understood better than most is that a story is not about understand, but about experience. “A story is a way to say something that can’t be said any other way,” she wrote, “and it takes every word in the story to say what the meaning is.”

In her story “Good Country People,” what we get when we read every word is the experience of a 32-year-old woman unfortunate enough to be an educated soul in the small-town south; to have a weak heart that has reduced her life expectancy and tied her to her mother’s house; and to have lost a leg in a childhood hunting accident.

A young woman who, resentful of her fate, has embraced at least a surface belief in nothing; who has made her manner ugly to spite all around her; who wears her bitterness as armor, and wields her PhD-in-philosophy intelligence as a weapon against the “good country people” among whom she sees herself sentenced to live.

The single proudest act of her 32 years has been to defy her mother’s naming of her – Joy – by legally changing her name to Hulga.

Enter Manley Pointer, the bible salesman, a tall gaunt youth who seems so “sincere, genuine, and earnest” that Hulga can’t help but be intrigued. Unable to decide whether to ridicule or embrace him, she does both – ultimately opting to seduce him to both spoil his innocence and claim some experience for herself.

But Hulga, in her arrogance, has read him wrong. In one of the strangest seduction scenes in American literature, this salesman is at least as jaded as she is, and has his own plans to take advantage of her by virtue of a morbid fascination with her wooden leg. Before he walks off with it, in a final thrust at her, he even lets her know he gave a fake name. As if to mock her pride in her own clever identity shift. Hell, he might as well say. Any country fool could do that.

What keeps this all from being a low joke is the fierceness with which O’Connor inhabits every character. From the busybody tenant farmer Mrs. Freeman to the stubborn optimist Mrs. Hopewell to the odd couple at the center of this haunted tale, these people all have moments of startling vulnerability as well as startling coarseness. Situations that might otherwise be silly get serious human treatment. The effect makes us squirm.

O’Connor, in all her stories, means to shock us into seeing ¬– our own gaping need, our own desperation, our own capability for cruelty, and the always difficult reach beyond ourselves in rare moments to mercy and maybe love.

I love her for her ruthlessness. For her sharp and unflinching eye. For what reading her stories has taught me about writing. O’Connor was God-haunted, and her stories are, too. Her savior Jesus was a “wild, ragged figure moving from tree to tree in the background” of her character’s minds and hearts. That haunting caused her to draw “large and startling figures,” but it also caused her to view each of those figures with a hardscrabble mercy. It’s that combination – black humor and raw human vulnerability – that arrested me when I read my first Flannery O’Connor story, and that still holds me today.

Update: You can read “Good Country People” online, for free, here. Big thanks to Michelle Zuppa for the link.

MacLean_pic2011_1Ron MacLean is author, most recently, of the novel Headlong (October 2013). His fiction has appeared in GQ, Fiction International, Other Voices, Drunken Boat, Best Online Fiction, and elsewhere. He is a multiple Pushcart Prize nominee and a winner of the Frederick Exley Award for Short Fiction. See his work at www.ronmaclean.net