Wise Blood (Dir. John Huston) **** (out of 5) Art Below by Josh Cochran.
I am officially a Flannery O’Connor convert – a Flannery O’Connvert, I suppose. (Cue rimshot.) When I first heard about her and her status as one of America’s literary greats I suspected that I would find her to be someone else’s treasured wordsmith and not my own. But she has found a home in my heart, her wise blood intermingling with my own foolish blood.
I bought a paperback copy of her first novel, Wise Blood, for my sister Alyssa in 2004, thinking she was the sort of book junkie who would probably enjoy it. I had not read it myself. I had simply heard good things about it, so I bought her a copy. I do things like this (however foolishly).
I usually find “classics” to be creations that often do not speak to me or this day and era. I look at an Academy Award-winning film like A Gentleman’s Agreement, in which Gregory Peck plays a reporter who poses as a Jewish man so he can see what kind of persecution Jews experience. Today the film feels like an anachronistic insult that merely plays with the idea of persecution like a cat toying with a mouse. I wondered if Wise Blood would read similarly, like some relic of a bygone era that had about as much relevance to me as Eli Whitney’s cotton gin.
But when I actually sat down to explore the book on my own, I found myself standing in one of the weirdest worlds I had ever discovered. I found it so strange that a Southern woman would write something as enigmatic, horrifying, and undeniably ugly as Wise Blood, but these elements that surprise are also elements that thrill me.
John Huston’s film based on the book follows Flannery’s footsteps pretty much note-for-note. The protagonist, Hazel Motes (Brad Dourif), is a backward, black-hat-wearing preacher who heads the Church of Christ Without Christ. He is a bent nail of a man intent on driving himself into the lid of his own coffin. He believes Jesus is unnecessary, irrelevant, and yet he cannot escape Him. A man without a home, he buys a rusted bucket of a car that hacks and wheezes like an old man with emphysema. “Nobody with a good car needs to be justified,” he says. His car is a visual metaphor for his independence, his determination to live life apart from Jesus, whose absence from his life becomes a sort of ghostly presence. Even though his car gets him where he needs to go for the most part, he is a man who is content not with second best, but with fourteenth or fifteenth best. Sure, he is able to live on his own terms, but is he really living? He believes he is clean, that he needs no redemption, that his own blood is his salvation.
The story is my kind of fare, as Mr. Motes’ world is populated by a circus-like cast of characters that only a surreal vision of the South could ever yield. There is Enoch Cameron, a buffoon of a boy who follows Hazel like some dumbed-down disciple. When Hazel preaches that the world needs a “New Jesus” that looks nothing like any Jesus anyone has ever known, Enoch steals a mummified child from the local museum – a bloodless, shrunken, unresurrected shell of a stand-in for Jesus. It is a ridiculous, darkly comedic action, and it is every bit as weird and out of place as it sounds. O’Connor has a way of making the most ridiculous things imaginable stand out like sore thumbs so people cannot help but stumble over them and examine them thoroughly. The book/film is also populated by characters such as the wandering blind preacher Asa Hawks (played in the film by the peerless Harry Dean Stanton) and his white-trash daughter, who is smitten with Hazel. Throw in a town prostitute, a gorilla suit, and a hammy huckster who wants to compete with Hazel’s Church of Christ Without Christ by forming his own church of the same name, and you realize very quickly that you are nowhere near Kansas anymore, Toto. This is otherworldly stuff – mysterious stuff that demands to be sorted out. It is worlds away from Hollywood’s paint-by-numbers studio fare, and it is black enough and surreal enough that it really feels worlds away from any ideas about life that we might have and hold dear.
Even more, it is puzzling enough to leave even David Lynch scratching his head. Wise Blood is the sort of corkscrew narrative that winds its way into your veins, into your bloodstream, into your mind, making your body – the Temple of the Holy Ghost, as Ms. O’Connor puts it in a short story of the same name – a haunted house. The picture of faith painted in Wise Blood is one that feels as if it has never been painted before and, as such, it does not go in one ear and out the other. Wise Blood is faith turned inside-out, grace in the most grotesque of places.