Like Flannery O’Connor, I was born in Georgia. I used to have a thick Southern accent, until my momma hired a British nanny to wallop it out of me; Momma reckons that’s why I live in London now. But if I start missing home, I can always dip into O’Connor’s fiction from the Deep South of the 1940s and ’50s. She never lost her accent, and you can hear it on every page of everything she ever wrote.
Wise Blood brings it out best. It’s a novel that might seem stylized and artificial to someone who hasn’t spent an afternoon driving a slow car through rural Georgia, listening to the God-bothered radio preachers with their nasal twang. The novel is full of these creatures. Hoover Shoats tells us he ‘was on the radio for three years with a program that give real religious experiences to the whole family. Didn’t you ever listen to it – called Soulsease, a quarter hour of Mood, Melody, and Mentality. I’m a real preacher, friend.’ Blind Asa Hawks, with his sex-crazed daughter Sabbath, hands out tracts saying ‘Jesus Loves you’, while calling out ‘If you won’t repent, give up a nickel. I can use it as good as you. Wouldn’t you rather have me beg than preach?’ And chief among these cynical grotesques is a fierce enigma of a man named Hazel Motes.
Hazel arrives in an unnamed, unreal city, fleeing Christ. He’s been raised by a country preacher and he can’t rid himself of the taint of prophecy, however much he tries. Everything he attempts moves him closer to Jesus, and enrages him further. Even when he was a child, ‘there was already a deep wordless conviction in him that the way to avoid Jesus was to avoid sin’ – so there really is no escape. Every hat he wears makes him look like a preacher; train travellers and used car salesmen and soda-fountain waitresses all think he’s a preacher; a taxi driver tells him, ‘It ain’t only the hat. It’s a look in your face somewheres.’ The novel follows Hazel’s consta
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