Having only read her short story, A Good Man is Hard to Find, the one thing I really knew about Flannery O’Connor is that she died young. Strike that. I also knew she was Southern, but I didn’t know until recently that she was born in Savannah.
When I saw A Good Hard Look on the used books shelf at a local shop, I was instantly curious. It’s a novel of Flannery O’Connor, not a novel by her. The author, Ann Napolitano, created a possible world of Flannery’s last year in Milledgeville, Georgia, her hometown and the place she retreated to after being diagnosed with Lupus. She had already written Wise Blood and The Violent Bear It Away. In A Good Hard Look there is talk of her writing, but whether it’s a third novel or a collection of short stories, it’s not entirely clear.
A Good Hard Look begins with the squawking of peacocks. They were so loud that all of Milledgeville heard them in the night. The birds kept people awake, put them on edge, and gave them pause, wondering why in the world someone would find the animals soothing. But Flannery did, and not only did she have a large collection of peacocks, she also had a menagerie of other fowl – ducks, geese, chickens, whatever. They roamed the farm outside town where she lived with her mother. Flannery wrote and tended to her birds, waiting to die.
The fiction bits are relational – friendships, romantic relationships, and parenting woes that are all made complicated by time. Flannery is dying and Cookie Himmel (her childhood nemesis) is newly married. The problem is that her New Yorker husband can’t understand why he and Flannery can’t be friends. There’s a housewife/seamstress whose life is jolted by a passionate affair with a teenage boy while her daughter searches for something that gives her life an ounce of meaning. There is an overbearing religious mother, a hard-nosed cop, and a baby. And as always, there are the peacocks. How they’re all connected requires reading the book.
Napolitano became infatuated with Flannery while in college. She familiarized herself with the writer’s voice and was inspired to immerse herself in the literary world because of it. Like Flannery, Napolitano was diagnosed with an autoimmune disease and it left her in a bout of depression. When her wellness returned, she committed herself to A Good Hard Look, a love letter to Flannery that took her six years to write. It is a provocative story that engages the reader and a poetic tribute to the Southern Gothic writer who was robbed of her years.