Alone Together

Looking back on a great read.

Carson McCullers, 1917-1967

Carson McCullers, 1917-1967

Every so often, I stumble upon a book that provides so intimate, so pertinent an experience, it is almost as though it had been a part of me for years without my being aware of it. As though the words had already crossed my mind on some prior occasion, but are finally being presented to me in their proper order. The first book I recall having such an experience with was To Kill a Mockingbird (and I’m quite sure I’m not alone in that regard), but I am certain there had been other books before that; books that seared themselves permanently to my identity, making it impossible to separate my own speculations from the ones another writer supplied me with. It is a phenomenon that is exclusive to reading, in my opinion: it could be written words or musical notation, but whatever the content, there is an undeniably singular effect prompted by the act of reading; this effect renders it almost impossible for the individual to distinguish, in hindsight, one’s original conception from another’s artistic expression. It is the most unifying of creative phenomena, the ultimate synthesis of an artist’s manifestation with the audience’s subjectivity.

The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, first published in 1940, is not just one of those books; it is a book about this disparity between expression and reception—about unspoken enlightenment and inexpressible neurosis. Its characters, isolated in their individual life experiences, struggle throughout to communicate their intangible wisdom to one another; although sparks occasionally fly, a solid current is never established between them, and each lonely heart is left to burn on its own terms. It’s a beautiful distillation of the human condition, and its effectiveness is in no small part due to McCullers’s precociousness as a 23-year-old writer. I believe that in the hands of a more “mature” author, the metaphor would have come across as heavy-handed and unnaturally portentous; but spoken from the mind of a young writer, the ideas resonate sincerely and quite movingly.

Born in 1917 in Columbus, Georgia, Lula Carson Smith was the descendant of a plantation owner and a Confederate war hero. Her books were written in North Carolina and New York, and her writing is marked by a profoundly nuanced, yet oddly detached knowledge of the South. McCullers was stricken with rheumatic fever at the age of fifteen, and suffered a series of strokes at a terribly young age; by the time she was 31, the left side of her body was completely paralyzed. Her biography is marked by a number of tragedies, including her own suicide attempts alongside her husband’s completed suicide. Her writing drew upon these tragic experiences, and what emerged was a remarkable and whole-hearted gift to the literary world—one for which she deserves our endless gratitude and respect.

McCullers earned many accolades for each exceptional facet of The Heart is a Lonely Hunter (her first published effort), including the structure of its character order—which is, to my knowledge, pretty much unparalleled in American literature. It actually reminds me of Robert Altman’s films more than any other published work; his adaptation of Carver’s Short Cuts leaps to mind, though Carver’s collection of stories was written without the interconnected plot lines in Altman’s film. But the innovation of McCullers’s structure is not simply to do with the multiplicity of loosely connected central characters: the actual hierarchy of their connections is equally noteworthy.

The novel opens with one of the most heart wrenching first chapters of any book I have ever read. John Singer, a deaf-mute living in a small southern town, shares his daily existence exclusively with another deaf-mute; they stroll to and from work together, arm in arm; they dine together, live together, play chess together. Although there is no implication of homoeroticism, it is clear to the reader that theirs is a truly loving relationship. Here are two men innately ostracized from the single-dimension society to which they’ve been born, bonded together in a lifelong relationship that defies every notion of transient love characterized by the world around them. Their story resembles a fable, an almost childlike romance of everlasting companionship (the childishness is further accentuated by the depiction of Singer’s partner, a heavyset Greek named Antonapoulos, as a developmentally disabled “man-child”). Theirs is the only genuine companionship presented in the novel, and even at that, it suffers inevitably from the restrictions of their differing developmental circumstances.

Unfortunate events force the two friends to part ways, and Singer moves to a different town. It is here that he becomes the center of the novel’s narrative, which plays out like a revolving wheel, with each spoke embodied by another lonely heart. There is an alcoholic philosopher; a dejected African-American doctor; a quiet but amiable bartender; and a young girl named Mick Kelly. It is remarkable to me how un-contrived the characters appear as drawn by McCullers. There is no formula, no shred of predictability to be found in their depiction; like all great characters throughout literature, they seem simply to have existed, and their presence on the page is a mere transcription of their reality beyond it. Jake Blount, the philosopher, is portrayed convincingly as a thoughtful man driven to drink by his perceived inability to convert anyone else to the complexity of his thought process. At times I felt I had been Jake at some earlier stage in my life; at others, I related more to Doctor Copeland, whose brain is constantly racked by dissatisfaction with the ignorant complicity of his own race. Still other times I saw myself in Biff, the stoic bartender capable of appreciating every human foible and eccentricity, reduced to simply watching the existence of others while his own life becomes an endless procession of ordinary days. More often, however, I related to Mick Kelly, the child in the process of uncovering the world’s workings—growing to know and love the “inside room” of the human soul, where one can hide away from that foreign, outside world; a safe haven filled with books, music, and pictures.

These four characters all turn to Singer in their solitude, as though looking in a mirror. Unable to respond verbally to their complaints, Singer is forced to accept them at their word, hands in his pockets, head nodding to signal comprehension. Each of the four “talkers” comes away from their meetings with Singer convinced that he or she has had a uniquely transcendental experience; each prides his or herself in the knowledge of having reached a private understanding with Singer—a sacred communion. It is only when Singer goes to visit Antonapoulos (who in turn represents for Singer what he represents to the other characters) that he can explain, in sign language, his frustration at having to endure all of their sob stories without really being able to understand them—or, more significantly, without being able to share his own. And just as Singer becomes disenchanted by his confidantes, Antonapoulos quickly tires of his friend’s presence and requires gifts in order to remain attentive. Although it is unacceptably tragic to think of human interaction being reduced to such hopeless terms, there is an undeniably valid truth in McCullers’s observations, and this is what endears us to them. I may be mistaken, but I do not believe it was her intention to misanthropically denounce socialization at every level: I like to believe that, as with any relevant artist, McCullers was interested in exploring and outlining the separateness of mankind in order to entertain the possibility of rising above it. When my eyes finished scanning the final page, I was not left with a feeling of despair, but with a strange sense of possibility.

The book is in fact full of life and passion. Her descriptions of Mick’s blossoming love affair with classical music, Jake’s attempts to interact philosophically at every given opportunity, Singer’s devoted rapport to Antonapoulos; for a somewhat slim volume, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter features an abundant variety of precious details. McCullers presents—instead of “tackling”—issues as diverse as race relations, alcoholism (which she herself struggled with), adolescence, deaf culture, marital fidelity, and class struggle. I find this distinction noteworthy in that one never gets the sense she is attempting to solve these problems within a three-hundred-page work of fiction—a misstep which could be attributed to many writers, both young and old. She presents her knowledge in the context of its limitations, and the overall impression is one of modesty, humility, and restless curiosity.

My favorite passage in the book deals with a horrific accident wherein Bubber—Mick’s little brother—shoots the town’s pageant girl, Baby Wilson, in the head with a rifle. He had been admiring her little pink purse (as McCullers explains, “Bubber wasn’t a sissy … He just loved pretty things”) and taking aim with the gun in jest, as any boy might do with a toy gun; unfortunately, this one happened to be loaded. The accident itself is a jolting event for the reader, and McCullers’s descriptions are vivid and direct; but it is the follow-up to the accident that really keeps one riveted. Little Bubber flees the scene of the crime and hides out in a treehouse, curled up in a corner. This is how Mick finds him, and to teach him a lesson, she tells him that Baby Wilson has died from the injury, and the authorities are out with a warrant to hang Bubber. This act of deception is almost superior in morbidity to the crime it is meant to reprimand, but her justification makes sense (that if she makes him feel bad enough about it for an hour, Bubber will be certain never to play casually with firearms again). Unfortunately, her plan backfires, and Bubber decides to make a run for it rather than wait for Mick in the treehouse. The incident is a perfect encapsulation of the childhood shame that arises from making an irrevocable mistake: Bubber takes his indignity to the extreme of actually trying to hitchhike to a different state. Looking back on my own childhood, I can think of several instances that provoked a similar sense of humiliation and disgrace within me (though none of them involve shooting anyone in the face, thankfully), and I have never read a better description of the psychological experience anywhere else. The incident also provides a tragic yet lucid illustration of McCullers’s central theme of emotional isolation; Bubber feels as though he will never be able to justify or explain away the mistake he has made, its consequences on permanent display in the deformation of Baby Wilson’s face. Rather than accept the inherently flawed humanity of his action, he prefers to disown his errors, thus disowning his existence up to that point in time. When he is finally spotted by his family on the side of a highway, he fights and protests fiercely against being brought home; once there, his behavior shifts—in one sudden motion, he moves quietly from the innocent beauty of childhood into the complex guilt of adolescence.

This is one of several brilliant sequences left out from the 1968 film adaptation by Robert Ellis Miller, an otherwise perfectly acceptable screen interpretation. Alan Arkin’s personification of John Singer is not just a thoroughly faithful reading, but one of the finest performances in a career abounding with fine performances; likewise, TV actor Chuck McCann is unforgettable as Antonapoulos. A young Sondra Locke does alright by Mick Kelly, though her characterization lacks some of the depth and dynamism of the novel. On the whole, I find it remarkable that a worthy film of the book was made on any terms, and it is definitely an under-appreciated (and mostly unknown) relic of late 60’s American cinema.

My first exposure to the name Carson McCullers actually came in the form of a film. I was taking piano lessons from a marvelous fellow with exquisite taste in all of the arts, and we had developed a habit of discussing movies we had seen and enjoyed (or not enjoyed) before delving into our lessons; sometimes, these conversations would last for most of our designated time. He never seemed to mind, and I certainly didn’t. To this day, I still believe some of the most valuable tuition he offered me came in the form of suggested viewing material—though this also provides a rather clear explanation for my mediocrity as a pianist. One particular suggestion stuck in my mind because it was especially difficult to get my hands on a copy of the film: it was titled Reflections of a Golden Eye, and featured Marlon Brando and Elizabeth Taylor. My piano teacher mentioned having caught it late at night on television, and although he never saw it in its entirety (probably due to the same difficulty I was experiencing in locating a print) he insisted it was one of the most memorable films he had ever seen.

I finally saw Reflections in a Golden Eye for the first time about six years ago. I was attending community college and spending every waking moment outside of class devouring films and records; books still held a prominent position in my private life, but they became synonymous with my breaks between school quarters (when one is cornered into reading aesthetically jarring textbooks, which only become worse with each successive profit-driven edition, one quickly learns to save good literature for a time when it won’t provide such an unfortunate contrast of quality). I found a DVD copy of Reflections at a local library, and promptly brought it home to quench the curiosity that had been burning within me since the first mention of its title. As expected, the film wound up being a high point in my movie-scouting experiences, and remains a favorite to this day: the performances are all wonderful—Julie Harris and Robert Forster offer a fantastically subtle counterpoint to the two legendary leads; John Huston’s experimental use of Technicolor distilled to golden hues was way ahead of its time, but it was the subject matter itself that struck me the most. The story plays out like Chris Cooper’s half of the narrative in American Beauty: a repressed gay man obsessed with a strange neighbor—in this case, the former a military Major played by Brando, the latter an enlisted man played by Forster—is forced to confront the true nature of his relationship with his wife, and in the process, the true nature of his own self.

As the film came to a close, I knew that I would have to delve into McCullers’s writing at some point, but wasn’t quite ready then. Being a young, “closeted” gay man myself, the film hit a little too close to home. Earlier this year I was in Nashville to see a concert at the Ryman Auditorium, and made the obligatory round of record stores during the afternoon. Apart from some exciting vinyl finds, I was thrilled to stumble upon a combination coffee shop/record/book store, laid out in a series of connected, open little coves; it didn’t take me long to locate a corner with my kind of literature—the one with multiple volumes of Flannery O’Connor, Nathanael West, Vladimir Nabokov, even a first edition hardcover of Barry Gifford’s Wild At Heart (the inspiration for David Lynch’s eponymous white trash masterpiece). It was here that I picked up a copy of The Heart is a Lonely Hunter; it felt as though I had come full circle in my personal journey to discovering her work, but I was actually only partway there—and I still have a long way to go.

I recently finished reading John Huston’s wonderful autobiography, An Open Book. There is an entire chapter devoted to his adaptation of Reflections in a Golden Eye, as well as McCullers’s one and only visit to his home in Ireland just months prior to her death. Huston’s description merits citation here:

“Carson was adorable, and brave as only a great lady can be brave. She was full of excitement—innocent child’s excitement which touched everything at hand. She was happy to be there, although she never left her room the whole time. She ate hardly anything, but when she did, she declared every mouthful to be delicious. She took bourbon in her little silver cup, sipping from it and then putting it down beside her. After no more than a sip or two she’d think she had finished the cup and she would ask for another. It was as if a butterfly had touched it. Sometimes she’d have what she thought were two or three drinks, but she never finished more than a quarter of the small cup.”

The Heart is a Lonely Hunter is the only book by McCullers that I have read; this means that I am a quarter of the way through all of her published novels. I bought a paperback copy of The Member of the Wedding not too long ago, but am saving it for another occasion. Much like To Kill a Mockingbird—a novel which said so much there was no need for its author to write another—McCullers’s debut is something that must be soaked in slowly. Months have transpired since my initial reading, and it still haunts my everyday thought process; I can feel its words and events mingling with my own ideas, fusing themselves to my view of the world in an individual way. I am certain that, one day, I will no longer be able to tell where those words end and I begin. And for that, I will feel eternally blessed.

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