“Utterly torturous” is how my teenaged self would’ve described reading the short stories collected in Flannery O’Connor’s A Good Man Is Hard to Find (1955). In high school everything “scarred me for life,” especially literature that didn’t include 19th-century governesses. I’m not sure how the State’s English teachers rationalized giving such raw, devastating texts to us innocents. O’Connor’s stories include [spoiler alert]: the execution-style murder of a family, an old woman’s bartering of her mentally impaired daughter for a fixed-up farm, and the accidental suicide of a four-year-old boy confused by religious fervor. My teachers okayed O’Connor but censored Chaucer. I’m guessing they never actually read the former.
I picked Flannery O’Connor back up to see if I could finally understand what I had read nearly two decades ago. The language is colloquial Southern, so it was not the vocabulary that had tripped me up, it was the tragicomedy. As a student, I only knew the textbook definition of tragicomedy. Now I know how it feels. It feels like absentmindedly trying to use chapstick instead of an ink pen to sign a loved one into the ER. It feels like running away from your greatest fear only to realize your path was a circle and you’ve actually hastened your nightmare.