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The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter (Oprah's Book Club)

1 rating: 3.0
A book by Carson McCullers

“To me the most impressive aspect of THE HEART IS A LONELY HUNTER is the astonishing humanity that enables a white writer, for the first time in Southern fiction, to handle Negro characters with as much ease and justice of those of her own race. … see full wiki

Tags: Books
Author: Carson McCullers
Genre: Teens
Publisher: Mariner
1 review about The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter (Oprah's Book...

An Ache That Becomes A Symphony

  • Mar 17, 2010
Its reputation as one of the great depressing American novels notwithstanding, "The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter" offers unexpected riches, presenting the "Southern Gothic" style at its most accessible and immediate as well as multiple story arcs that flow rather seamlessly toward a common end. Yes, it's depressing, and wantonly so at that. So, too often, is life.

The four characters whose story arcs make up "The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter" converge on one man, friend to all but known by none, a deaf-mute named John Singer. Is it his tranquil, compassionate face that stirs the four divergent characters to seek him out? Or is his voiceless condition an opportunity for them to see in him what they want, and disregard the rest?

Carson McCullers was a young woman just finding herself when she published this in 1940. Knowing this, it's easy to recognize her in the character of Mick Kelly, a young girl taking a larger view of life through art. In Mick's case, music is her muse.

At one point Mick catches an orchestral piece on Singer's radio. What Singer is doing with a radio is just one of many questions that identify him as a kind of secular Christ-figure, finding joy only by giving to others. Mick's reaction seems to capture some of the pain behind McCullers' worldview.

"Wonderful music like this was the worst hurt there could be. The whole world was this symphony, and there was not enough of her to listen."

Some will find that sentiment twee and quaint, but it is backed up by a book that seems to work like a symphonic piece, its four movements running simultaneously rather than sequentially, and assorted common motifs and themes darting in and out. One can't help thinking of a Robert Altman film, or a really good episode of "The Office", working their magic along similar lines. But McCullers got there first.

What doesn't move me? I thought the ending a little abrupt and too "Richard Cory" for its own good. Others say it's the book's greatest moment, but to me it was a cheap out. Mick has a sexual experience so tastefully written it seems to take place only in her head, though I don't think that was the author's intention. The character I was most interested in, café owner Biff Brannon, is never developed in the same deep way as the other three core players and seemed mostly employed as a narrative device for processing observations.

"Do not attempt to stand alone" says the black Marxist, Doctor Copeland, even though its advice he's in no position to heed. His story, and that of the more radically-minded Jake Blount, give the novel much of its passion, its best lines, and root it firmly in the pre-World War II period where depression at home and fascism abroad were challenging what Americans believed about themselves. McCullers is too smart and too focused to allow communism to be presented as the be-all answer; it's one of the book's many ironies that two such like-minded fellows find so much about which they can violently disagree.

The book is, like the title suggests, an essay on loneliness, one that sidesteps incident (though wild things do happen) for character and an overriding sense of existential ache. It's not everyone's cup of tea, but blue-minded people will find a lot to commiserate with here.

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