In almost every Flannery O'Connor story, someone (or everyone) dies in absurd and traumatic ways. In "Greenleaf," Mrs. May gets gored in the heart by a bull. In "A Good Man Is Hard to Find," an entire family—including children—is shot to death by an escaped convict. And it's widely agreed that, in light of O'Connor's slightly dark and twisted approach to Catholicism and her 13-year battle with lupus, which destroyed her body from the inside out, violence, to O'Connor, is an avenue toward grace.
The violence in O'Connor's fiction is always over-the-top, much like the violence she must have believed was visited upon Christ. And we are always forced to believe that her characters, who are almost always eternally flawed and hardly likable, are absolved in their last, horrifying moments. But there is something else in O'Connor's gore and gratuity: The pain the characters feel, if only fleetingly, is so extremely visceral that readers are forced to identify with it. If this type of death is even conceivable, one is compelled to believe that any amount of pain could befall them at any moment. O'Connor's readers are always consciously or subconsciously communing with their own afflictions.
This is a concept Ann Napolitano explores in her book A Good Hard Look. Napolitano imagines the last two years of O'Connor's life after she moves back to her family farm in Milledgeville, Georgia, essentially to die. Though O'Connor, the writer, did return home to die, everything else in the book is made up. The characters who are affected directly and indirectly once she returns are fictionalized, but it's not hard to believe that people may have reacted the way Napolitano's characters do when Flannery, the character, shows up again.
That is Napolitano's greatest triumph. The pain O'Connor visits upon her characters in their last moments is stretched through every page of Napolitano's book. The reality in which the characters find themselves—in a stifling Southern town—is so creatively and emotionally bankrupt that the mere sight of Flannery reminds them all how ugly they really are. And it terrifies them. In A Good Hard Look, Flannery's fiction has so sharply outlined the insignificance of life in Milledgeville that the town itself has become a character, and each individual resident is defined by the shared determination to prove Flannery wrong. But despite everyone's best efforts, ugliness reaches them through a horrifying tragedy, and they react as inhumanly as O'Connor herself would have predicted.
Yet this tragedy doesn't happen until near the end of the book. The true tragedy is every page, every day, in the lives of these characters. And only through Flannery's eyes do we get a sense of the meaninglessness this entire town represents. The writer is less a character in A Good Hard Look than she is a voice. Napolitano masterfully uses O'Connor as a transcendent figure representing a morality that folks in Milledgeville are incapable of achieving. Always in the background, godlike in its ubiquity, O'Connor's mind is the only mind through which the disgusting existence of these characters—and perhaps the reader's as well—would have any context. Without O'Connor, the citizens of Milledgeville would just be a bunch of irredeemable philistines wandering in a pseudo-purgatory. But, much as the violence at the end of O'Connor's stories lends meaning and context to her character's lives, Napolitano's use of O'Connor's worldview makes us see the point of these characters' wanderings.
Napolitano probably felt she had to injure Milledgeville's residents in some way if she were to do O'Connor justice. But the tragedy that takes place more than three quarters of the way through the story doesn't seem earned. It might be a problem with the pacing: Short chapters jump from character to character so that we are forced to the climax instead of compelled toward it. They don't have the time in this fast-paced novel to earn the absolution brought about through trauma and death.
The whole point of O'Connor's work is to show us characters who don't even know the sins—the pride, the sloth, the terrible self-involvement and narcissism—that plague them until it's too late. It's through the reader knowing the unapologetic nature of the character, and knowing that the only way out for them is through self-destruction, that tragedy is earned. Otherwise, it would only amount to random acts of gratuitous violence.
That's not to say Napolitano's climax is gratuitous. Her writing is beautiful and adept, and the way the scenes unfold are seamless and never random:
As it was, the flurry that had arisen on the ground and in the air had matched the tornado inside her so exactly, so perfectly, that for a second or two she didn't recognize that anything was wrong. She wished she could re-create that moment. She wished she could go back to the beginning. If she had been alert, if she had been prepared, she would have... made sure that no one was hurt.
Throughout the book, the characters are begging for absolution, for a release, and Napolitano simply hands it to them. But the hurt that relieves O'Connor's characters at the end of her stories doesn't come when asked. It comes when God, in most cases O'Connor herself, deems it necessary.