Saturday, August 4, 2018

Book Response: "The Heart is a Lonely Hunter" by Carson McCullers

I knew what I was walking into when my book club chose "The Heart is a Lonely Hunter" by Carson McCullers for this month's discussion. I read the book eleven years ago, and I can still remember the feeling when I turned the last page. I remember feeling as though I had experienced something profound, but I wasn't quite sure how to articulate it to others. Since my book club isn't meeting for several more weeks, I figured blogging my thoughts would keep them more organized for later discussion.

If you've ever seen the movie Love Song for Bobby Long, McCullers' book features prominently as a bonding device for disparate and isolated characters. That seems right to me given that the story follows five characters that feel disconnected from everyone around them. Isolation is a prominent theme in the book, and it's interesting that these characters even seem to sabotage or turn away from opportunities to express themselves and experience genuine connection with others. McCullers captures the modernist plight of man in an industrialized society, specifically in the south in the years following The Great Depression.

Our five perspective characters reach across a spectrum of race, sex, age and disability. Singer is a deaf mute whose sense of isolation is unique, because it is rare in the book that he is actually alone. Singer's limited ability to communicate with the others characters in the story doesn't dissuade them all from coming around and talking at Singer. And this is definitely what made me stop and think about the dynamics of communication. Singer represents something different to every one of the other characters, and they elevate him in their minds to something like a guru, but they never ask him any questions. They know nothing about him. I'm sure everyone has encountered those people who talk at you, but don't bother to actually get to know you. Listening and feeling like you are heard is such a pivotal part of establishing a healthy relationship. I didn't recognize this point the first time I read the book, and I'm not surprised as I've learned quite a bit about real communication between the ages of 22-33.

I feel like Dr. Copeland's story still speaks to the current issues of institutional racism, including police brutality and African American poverty. And while the doctor's radical Marxist ideals and his extensive education set him apart from those in his African American community, it definitely seems like it is Dr. Copeland's anger that is at the center of his sense of isolation. He knows how he exists within the current construct of American society, and how other people of color also fall into this trap of injustice through poverty, and he his rightfully angry.

Anger fuels the character of Jake Blount, an alcoholic labor agitator. Through the whole book I wanted Jake and Dr. Copeland to meet, because I thought that if it happened then they would be able to converse about their similar ideals. This scene takes place towards the end of the book, and at the moment of complete recognition and understanding, it is anger and stubbornness that keep these two from recognizing the connection they could cultivate.

I'm still not entirely sure how I feel about the character of Biff Brannon, the people-watching diner owner who harbors inappropriate feelings toward the pubescent Mick Kelly. Brannon is deeply reflective, and there is almost a dreamy quality to his parts because he experiences things so fully. Yet again, he is hampered by his inability to communicate, especially now that his wife has died.

Mick Kelly's story is still the one I feel impacts me most profoundly. When we come into knowing Mick, she is an intelligent girl in the midst of puberty; her mind filled with music and musical arrangements that suggest that she could be a composer. Mick's inability to access the resources to turn her passion into a reality by learning the language of music is a byproduct of the poverty that Dr. Copeland and Biff rail against. Mick has to end her childhood and start working to help her poverty-stricken family. It's a heart wrenching loss, but Mick's reaction to this is what possible elevates her into more of a heroic role. Mick is angry, and as a reader you recognize this anger because it's present in other characters, but Mick transcends her anger through hope. She doesn't let go of the dream of owning a piano and taking music lessons, but rather, she adjusts the dream to accommodate her reality, so it will take a little longer to save, but save she will, and I believe her. Isn't that what becoming an adult is all about - compromising our dreams to make money to survive?

It's still shocking to me that this was McCullers' first novel, and she was only 23 when she wrote it. There are messages in this story that seem to resonate from an old soul. These messages range from  the trap that is the structure of our industrialized society, the oppression of poverty, race relations,  and the passage from childhood into adulthood. It was a pleasure to return to such a rich story that is still relevant and still speaks universal truths.

No comments:

Post a Comment