The Heart is a Lonely Hunter - Carson McCullers
I read this book for the first time about two or three years ago, and I thought that it was just ho-hum. Later, I came across Doug Shaw's review and got it. Oh, that's what it was about! It went on my "To Be Re-read" list, and I was excited when my book club chose it to be June' read. I definately liked it much more the second time around.
The story begins in a southern mill town. Mr. Singer and Spiros Antonapoulus are deaf mutes who live together. Spiros is mentally unstable, and his cousin/guardian has him committed to an asylum. This completely breaks Mr. Singer’s heart. (Were they just friends? Were they lovers? I don’t know…I think it’s kind of irrelevant). Anyhoo, Spiros is institutionalized and Singer moves into a boarding house owned by the Kelly family.
The book then follows four town misfits (Mick Kelly, Dr. Copeland, Jake, and Biff) who believe they have found their bosom buddy in Mr. Singer. While Dr. Copeland believes that Mr. Singer is the only white man he has ever met who understands the plight of the “negro race,” Jake thinks that Singer understands the hardship of the worker in a capitalist society. Perhaps strangest of all is Mick, who believes that Singer understands music. Other people in the town believe that Singer is like them as well: the Turks think that he is a Turk, the union members believe that he is a CIO organizer or something, etc. Somehow, this deaf mute became the screen on which everyone projected themselves. They all are seeking understanding amidst frustration, disappointment and unfairness and they find in Singer exactly what they are looking for.
Singer, however, really has no clue what's up with all these crazy people...they think that he "gets" them, but in reality he doesn't. At one point in the novel, these four accidentally all find themselves in Singer's room at the same time, and while they will talk Singer's ear off when they are alone, they have nothing to say to each other - they are completely unable to relate to one another. Singer is the only one who understands them, even though he doesn't really.
Singer, of course, does the same thing with Spiros that the others do with him: he believes that Spiros understands, even though he couldn't care less about Singer unless food is involved. Singer does elaborate things to please Spiros, including buying him a movie projection machine to use in asylum and writing him letters (Spiros is illiterate). But Spiros probably even more removed from Singer than Singer is from his disciples. That's the sad part: Singer needs Spiros more pitifully than the gang of four need him.
What makes this whole thing even more tragic is that none of the four who love Singer realize what's going on with him regarding Spiros. He will disappear for a week or so at a time to visit his friend, but leaves no explanation, never tells anyone he's going away. When he returns, his "friends" will ask him where he was, but when he pretends not to understand their question, they just go on as if nothing had happened. They don't realize the depth of Singer's pain, while he sits and actively listens to all their problems. One day, Singer goes to visit Spiros to discover that he has died. Singer comes home and kills himself, and of course no one knows or understands why. The four others pretty much look at it as if Singer betrayed them.
At the book club, the discussion focused in large part on the nature of misfits and why those in the book could not "accept other people's acceptance..."; in other words, why are these misfits misfits? This is really something I've been hearing my entire life and it's very frustrating. I'm sure that while most people have felt out of place at some time or other, to be a misfit is to essentially feel out of place almost all of the time, even amongst other people who don't fit in. And no matter how hard one tries, you can never really feel part of the group...you're always separate, somehow...outside...like constantly being at a party where you don't know anyone and no one will talk to you. It's a search for understanding, like the characters in the book, and boils down to a fundamental question: can any of us really, truly be understood by someone else? The answer is probably not.
There was also a mention of whether these characters are "not right" because of the Southern Gothic style. Frankly, the characters in The Heart is a Lonely Hunter are some of the most normal characters that I have encountered in Southern literature. Compare this to Flannery O'Connor's crazy religious nuts, and I think you'll know what I mean. My favorite thing that was mentioned was by someone else who vocalized her feelings of misfit-ness, who said, "I was reading this book thinking, wow, McCullers really gets what it's like to be an outsider. And then in the end, there is no redemption, no hope for these characters. Come on Carson, I thought we were friends here!" That is really true...the book gives such life to these characters that don't fit in, but in the end they are trapped by their circumstances. No matter how talented Mick is musically, she's never going to write that symphony. Is that sad? Of course, but it's reality. It's what one would expect to happen given the circumstances of her life. McCullers doesn't include any sentimentality or emotion in the book...not for the characters, not for their situations, and dooms them all to the fates that they should be expected to have, not the ones that they should have. It's as if McCullers is saying, "oh well, such is life!" to anyone who desires to find hope in her book. But as I was writing the quote above, about the feeling of camaraderie with McCullers, I realized that to say that of the author - that she fundamentally understands - is to do the same thing that the characters did to Singer - she believed that the author really understood her life, and then realized that there was no understanding, and there is a sense of betrayal that comes with that...which is exactly what the characters felt after Singer shot himself.
I’m finding a trend in book club: when we read books that are dark and bleak, such as The Heart… and The Road, I LOVE them (or at least like them more than average), but the reactions of the others tends towards opposition and non-understanding of the book. With the happier books (Water for Elephants), I can’t stand them, but the consensus is, “what a great book!” July’s book is Eat, Pray, Love. I’m going into it with an open mind, but let’s just say I don’t have high hopes.
Right now, I’m winding down The Odyssey (about 80 pages to go) and gearing up for Ulysses. I’ll be honest – Joyce scars me, and I’m expecting my experience with Ulysses to be like being an athlete at the Olympics. Maybe it won’t be so bad…it’s just got such a horrible reputation. Seriously, it feels like getting ready for an athletic event – I’m preparing and I'm imagining people are patting me on the back saying “Good luck"...jumping around like a boxer ready for a fight. But it really can't be that difficult, right?