One look at the cover of Flannery O’Connor’s debut novel makes clear what is central to the story. The red heart, wrapped in barbed wire, conjures the image of the sacred heart of Jesus, but I doubt most Catholic readers will be able to persevere through this heady and often gruesome novel–but they certainly should!

If you have known me for more than a minute, you’ll know two things about me: I am a writer (of mysteries mainly) and I am a Catholic. When I was first considering converting, a poet friend of mine gave me a book of letters between Shelby Foote and Walker Percy, two southern writers whose friendship waxed and waned over the decades. At one point, Foote expresses his trepidation over Percy’s conversion to Catholicism, believing that religious orthodoxy would restrict his freedom of expression and thus hinder his writing.

Anyone who fears the limiting effects religion will have on their fiction should immediately read Wise Blood and have their fears dispelled. While the novel overflows with Christian symbolism–the tree (the cross) that Sabbath dances in while Haze Motes wrestles with the theological underpinnings of his new “Church Without Christ,” the illuminated cloud that seems to wear a curling white beard (the father) and then transforms into a bird (the holy spirit) before moving away from Haze, the swine that populate the narrarive in various carnations–the story itself is neither sentimental nor heavy handed. In the true high-modern fashion, these symbols are used holistically, as a braided thread that ties the narrative together, and while religious and quasi religious figures run rampant–in the guise of preachers and prophets and messiahs–none of them are admirable or worth emulating.

When orthodoxy does arise in the novel, it is shrouded in mystery, the unseen and the unspoken, a thing that can be contemplated but not known; and though the protagonist is “a Christian malgrĂ© lui” (in spite of himself) as O’Connor states in her author’s note, he is neither stereotypical nor laudable. After we discover that Haze Motes has turned to acts of mortification, placing rocks and broken glass in his shoes, barbed wire around his chest, it becomes clear that he does not understand what he is doing or why. In fact, his very name suggests that his vision of the world is hazy as though he has the proverbial mote in his eyes.

While a foundational reading of the Gospels and Sophocles’ Oedipus trilogy will add depth to the understanding of this sledgehammer of a book, Wise Blood stands on its own thanks to the tension, which is as taut as a worship singer’s guitar strings, and the characters, who are both incredibly unlikable and incredibly compelling. Though our sympathy is not engaged, we are–until the very last image and beyond.

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