Have you ever encountered a book that totally grabbed you–gripped you by the throat and wouldn’t let go? That you just had to keep reading non-stop until you finished?
Don’t know about you, but I’ve only had a handful of these too hot-to-touch experiences in my whole reading life. The one that really sticks with me after all these years is my first encounter with Carson McCullers’s The Heart is a Lonely Hunter (1940).
I read Heart as an assignment for an English class (Contemporary Fiction, maybe?) in my sophomore year of college. Had never heard of the book or Carson McCullers. Had no idea what it was about. Had no expectations at all. Somehow the book and its author had managed to totally escape my radar.
And then, suddenly, here I was reading this book I had never heard of by an author I’d never heard of . . . and found myself reading it . . . and reading it . . . and reading it.
I devoured it in one uninterrupted session: started early on a Saturday morning and read it through the night and finished it the next day. This is a 400+ page novel, so you can imagine how bleary-eyed I was by the end of the reading. Felt like a dishrag. But a happy dishrag. A fulfilled dishrag. A moved dishrag.
I kind of miss those days when a book could so completely pull me into its orbit. Doesn’t happen much anymore. Nowadays, there’s always a little bit more distance. And a little less endurance. But back then, there was nothing more thrilling than feeling so purely in sync with an author and her work. Kind of like falling in love, I suppose.
So why did The Heart is a Lonely Hunter grab me so hard?
Perhaps because the author was just about my age–late teens/early twenties–when she wrote it? (McCullers published the novel when she was all of twenty-three.)
Perhaps because Heart deals with marginal and marginalized characters, oddballs who don’t quite fit into their environment. Lonely people who are desperately searching for a way to connect with others, to mean something to someone else. (I don’t know about you, but that pretty much sums up where my head was at when I was nineteen.)
As one of the characters puts it:
“I’m a stranger in a strange land.”
And another–the owner of an all-night diner–says: “I like freaks”:
What he said to Alice was true–he did like freaks. He had a special friendly feeling for sick people and cripples. Whenever somebody with a harelip or T.B. came into the place he would set him to beer. Or if the customer were a hunchback or a bad cripple, then it would be whiskey on the house.
Or perhaps because I was simply ready for a book to totally transport me to someplace new, someplace I hadn’t been before. Who knew that a Depression-era story set in a middle-of-nowhere small town in the deep south could speak so directly and intimately to a northern urbanite like me?
I was totally hooked by that intriguing first sentence:
In the town there were two mutes, and they were always together.
Almost sounds like the beginning of a fairy tale, doesn’t it?
And, indeed, the world McCullers creates is a strangely hypnotic one, peopled with off-kilter characters, souls who harbor inchoate secrets, unfulfilled desires, unknowable pain. It’s not in any sense a realistic depiction of a Depression-era southern town; instead McCullers creates a strangely poetic and evocative dreamscape of loners and dreamers and misfits.
On the surface, it’s a similar milieu to that of To Kill a Mockingbird–except that McCuller’s novel altogether dispenses with Lee’s sometimes saccharine sentimentality for something altogether tougher and truer.
At the heart of the novel is John Singer, one of the two mutes mentioned in the opening sentence. He is the glue that mysteriously binds the four other central characters (and the story) together. They all are drawn to this mysteriously silent yet somehow magnetic figure.
Around him circle the other main characters:
- Mick Kelly–an adolescent girl who through the course of the novel turns from a tomboy to having her first (incredibly sad) sexual experience to a dispiriting job at Woolworth’s. Her dreams of a music career are dashed by the financial hardships that force her to drop out of her freshman year of high school and get a full-time job to help support her family.
- Jake Blount–an alcoholic socialist and labor agitator who alienates everyone he meets with his rants about social injustice and workers’ rights.
- Biff Brannon–owner and operator of the New York Café, who occasionally cross-dresses and harbors a strange (and unrequited) love for young Mick.
- Dr. Benedict Copeland–an elderly black physician who has spent his life trying to make life better for the black residents of his town, but is left angry and frustrated at his inability to better the lot of his people, even the members of his own family.
These people take Singer into their confidence and share with him their deepest secrets, even though we as readers are never quite sure how much Singer really understands of what is being communicated to him:
The fellow was downright uncanny. People felt themselves watching him even before they knew that there was anything different about him. His eyes made a person think that he heard things nobody else had ever heard, that he knew things no one had ever guessed before. He did not seem quite human.
As I was re-reading the novel recently, I kept thinking: how did a young girl from the deep south know all this stuff?
How could she know about someone like Biff, a wonderfully complex and decent man and his strange obsessions (after his wife dies, he takes to trying on her clothes and wearing her perfume).
Or how McCullers could have developed such an empathetic and nuanced view of Dr. Copeland: a complex and fully-realized African-American character. Noble but not saintly. Well-meaning but terribly flawed. How did a small-town girl from the deep south manage to look past the prevailing prejudices and racial hatred of that time and place to so fully understand and give voice to a black man’s impotent rage and frustration?
And, of course, there is her gorgeous portrayal of Mick Kelly. McCullers travels so deeply and intimately into Mick’s psyche we feel as if we are inside Mick’s head as she takes her sad journey from being an energetic thirteen-year-old tomboy to a dejected and seemingly beaten fourteen-year-old high school dropout at the end.
One of the saddest moments in my reading life was when McCullers describes Mick’s lonely dinner at Jake Blount’s diner–a chocolate sundae and a nickel glass of beer:
What good was it? That was the question she would like to know. What the hell good it was. All the plans she made, and the music. When all that came of it was this trap–the store, then home to sleep, and back at the store again. . . . Whenever there was overtime the manager always told her to stay. Because she could stand longer on her feet and work harder before giving out than any other girl.
As I was reading the book again, I couldn’t help flashing back to the younger version of myself who had initially fallen in love with The Heart is a Lonely Hunter.
I totally connected with Mick’s habit of taking long solitary walks–because it felt like I had spent half my adolescence and young adulthood on similar nighttime excursions. First, walking the streets of my suburban town alone. And later in high school secretly traveling into NYC by myself and wandering the streets of the city for hours and hours, searching for . . . what, exactly?
These nights were secret, and of the whole summer they were the most important time. In the dark she walked by herself and it was like she was the only person in the town. Almost every street came to be as plain to her in the nighttime as her own home block. Some kids were afraid to walk through strange places in the dark, but she wasn’t.
So how does the novel look after all these years? Pretty darn good. No, I didn’t read it in one sitting this time around, but the book still grabbed me. And, honestly, made me feel pretty good about my younger self for latching onto this mysterious, tough, yet ultimately uplifting book.
And while Heart is full of frustration and sadness and heartbreak, McCullers does not leave us in a total funk. Because each of the characters has a moment of transcendence at the end of the novel. No happy endings to be sure, but in the face of adversity and seemingly insurmountable roadblocks, there is a sense of resolve and endurance.
Here is the lovely end to Mick’s story:
But now no music was in her mind. That was a funny thing. It was like she was shut out from the inside room. Sometimes a quick little tune would come and go–but she never went into the inside room with music like she used to do. It was like she was too tense. Or maybe because it was like the store took all her energy and time. Woolworth’s wasn’t the same as school. When she used to come home from school she felt good and was ready to start working on the music. But now she was always too tired. . . .
But maybe it would . . . turn out O.K. Maybe she would get a chance soon. Else what the hell good had it all been–the way she felt about music and the plans she had made in the inside room? It had to be some good if anything made sense. And it was too and it was too and it was too and it was too. It was some good.
So, all in all, I guess I feel a little proud of that lonely, confused college sophomore version of myself for having the good taste to fall head over heels in love with this wonderful book, to fall in love with Singer and Mick and all the other misfit characters.
If this book has managed to elude your radar so far (as it almost did mine), make sure to give it a read. You may find yourself staying up all night to finish it, as I did once upon a time.