Four weeks ago, a man no one knew, who had a crystal necklace, personal problems, and a job at Pizza Hut, entered a two-story house firing a semiautomatic pistol and a pistol-grip 12-gauge Winchester Defender shotgun. Later, in his truck, police found more ammunition, a semiautomatic rifle, a handgun, a baseball bat, and a machete. The shooting could have been imagined by Flannery O'Connor. Irony, senselessness, and barbarism are O'Connor hallmarks.
Two weeks after the shooting, a man in my building (who has personal problems) went missing. One night I entered my building behind three cops, who'd come to look for him. Then the cops were standing on the sidewalk and the apartment manager came out to describe what the missing man looked like when who should walk by but the missing man. Eventually an ambulance pulled up and the man was cajoled into its gleaming white cabin and strapped to a table. I closed the window and wandered around my apartment in a mood. On the table sat a photocopy of Flannery O'Connor's early story "The Barber," which a friend had sent in the mail after I told her at a party that I'd never read it. The photocopy was taken from The Complete Stories of Flannery O'Connor, according to the top of each page.
For four weeks I've been rereading and reading for the first time stories in O'Connor's The Complete Stories. When you carry it into a coffee shop you always get a response. "A Good Man Is Hard to Find," the one that ends with the (senseless) shooting of a family by the side of the road, grandma last, was used as example by a barista at Faire (a great new coffee shop) in an on-the-spot diatribe against O'Connor. The barista contended that O'Connor "sides with the bad people." I disagreed; O'Connor sides with everyone. Fifty years and 27 days ago, O'Connor wrote to a friend in a letter, "What personal problems are worked out in stories must be unconscious." She was discussing her story "Greenleaf," which ends with a woman suddenly gored by a bull, lifted into the sky on his horns. "My preoccupations are technical. My preoccupation is how am I going to get this bull's horns into this woman's ribs. Of course why his horns belong in her ribs is something more fundamental, but I can't say I give it much thought. Perhaps you are able to see things in these stories that I can't see because if I did I would be too frightened to write them. I have always insisted that there is a fine grain of stupidity required in the fiction writer." After some discussion, the barista revised her opinion of "A Good Man Is Hard to Find" to, simply: "I wish that didn't happen to those people."
The other day, an employee of Twice Sold Tales—I called to see if the store had any copies of O'Connor's The Complete Stories—said their one copy had sold an hour earlier. The computers at University Book Store say there are three copies in stock, but they've all gone missing.