It was probably inevitable that I would read Ann Napolitano’s A Good Hard Look, a modern Southern Gothic written around characters and themes Flannery O’Connor likely would have appreciated and which casts Flannery herself as a character in the center of uncomfortably interlaced conflicts. The gorgeous peacock feathers gracing the cover remind the reader of the ubiquitous presence of the fowl in O’Connor’s life and tip her off that they will figure prominently and hauntingly in the novel, as well.
The story moves along at a good clip and the unbearably tense situations the characters both create and find themselves in are gut-wrenching and shocking. The character of Flannery variously touches the lives of each person in the conflict and so their lives also touch her own. She reacts with varying degrees of hesitancy and wariness, graciousness and understanding to each sympathetic intrusion into the carefully cultivated inner sanctum of her private life. Napolitano resists the temptation to keep O’Connor out of the messy dramas that ensue when tragic missteps result in lives destroyed, and instead courageously places the character of the famous author in the center of it all, allowing her to both experience and demonstrate real human frailty and emotions.
Conflict is an integral part of the structure of the book, which is divided into three sections, each reflecting one word of the title. Each word in isolation creates a thematic grouping of characters, choices, and consequences. The main problem raised in the novel is the difference between what seems to be good and what really is in fact good. What appears to be “good” may not be so, and choices made based on the value of an apparant good may have “hard” consequences which can only be survived and learned from by “looking” them squarely in the face and admitting the truth about one’s motives. This is the pattern of all deeply drawn character development and the pattern for all real human growth. Napolitano pulls it off with ease and forces the reader to confront her own ideas about what is true and real, in both the human and the spiritual realm, while also directly confronting the problems that arise when rationalization interferes with the wrong use of reason, when reason is no longer at the service of actions based in real as opposed to seeming moral goodness and truth, but is rather merely used as a tool for self-gratification without limits or concern for the web of humanity of which each character is a part.
Napolitano is no slouch — she has read and researched O’Connor and the characterization of the famous author rings true in the way she writes her — an accurate, respectful and appreciably real picture of O’Connor comes through. Readers familiar with O’Connor’s non-authorial voice will recognize her own voice faithfully rendered in the dialogue of A Good Hard Look. Similarly, the gift for rendering the grotesque, for sifting through dross for the moments of grace presented to every human being in the exercise of the gift of their free will is masterfully rendered by Napolitano in a way that O’Connor herself would appreciate. Napolitano is faithful to O’Connor’s style and concerns as a writer, and even perhaps to the Catholic tradition she felt it her duty to write in.
Having read everything Flannery O’Connor has written, including her published personal correspondence, I have to say that there were moments when it was hard for me to believe the Flannery O’Connor in the world of Napolitano’s novel was in any way like the real O’Connor. I don’t know that this is the result of any hagiographic worship of the author on my part so much as the fact that O’Connor’s life and religious beliefs are so clearly layed out in her letters and essays that it is hard to imagine her in the center of a conflict which might force her to call all of those things into question. For me, it weakens her some how, because I have always been drawn to her strength of faith and her ability to articulate it clearly. But perhaps it is here where Napolitano wields her master stroke as a writer — fiction writers always ask “What would happen if….?” and then proceed to create a world and characters and events that tell the story that would answer that question. What Napolitano bravely takes on is positing for the fictional O’Connor a conflict unlike any she’d experienced in her life and then imagining how O’Connor would have reacted to it and handled the consequences of her choices and the choices of others whose lives she allowed to touch hers.