Thursday, June 20, 2019

Book 186: The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter



"The joy made him feel like a drunken man. To teach and exhort and explain to his people—and to have them understand. That was the best of all. To speak the truth and be attended."

Dates read: October 30- November 2, 2017

Rating: 7/10

Lists/awards: Time's All-Time 100 Novels

A lot of people, including myself, talk about how hard it is to make friends as adults. And it is, for lots of understandable reasons, mostly centered around only meeting new people in relatively small numbers after a certain point. But we also tend to be less open and vulnerable as we get older, and that makes it harder to make a real connection. Our old friends, we feel like we can tell them anything, and that's such an important thing to have in our lives. Everyone wants to feel understood.

Carson McCullers' The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter takes place in small-town Georgia, but it could take place in a small town anywhere. Our main character is John Singer, a Deaf man who works as a silversmith (he's continually referred to as "deaf-mute", or "mute", because this book was written in 1940 and they weren't great about sensitivity training back then). At the very beginning, he's living with a fellow Deaf man, Antonopolous, as his roommate, and they speak to each other in sign language. While Singer is otherwise typical apart from his deafness, Anton clearly has more profound issues...he seems to have some sort of intellectual disability as well as health problems. After a medical episode, his brother (the local grocer) takes him to an institution to be cared for, leaving Singer in need of a new place to go.

He ends up in the boarding house run by the Kelly family, and it's here that he attracts one of what turns out to be a small but devoted group of...well, followers is the best way to describe it. Mick Kelly, the musically-inclined daughter of the not-well-off family, comes often to Singer's room to talk to him (he can read lips and will occasionally respond in writing) and listen to the radio. At the local cafe, Singer attracts the lonely owner, Biff, who has a bad marriage even before he's widowed, and Jake, a traveling labor organizer trying to inspire the locals to band together. And then he also manages to meet and attract the attention of Dr. Benedict Copeland, the only black doctor in town, whose children (including the maid for the Kelly family) have refused to follow in his footsteps. While he moves through all of these people's lives at the center of their obsession, though, he maintains his own obsession with his friend and former roommate, regularly visiting him and bringing him expensive gifts.

I'll be honest...when I first started reading this, I was concerned that it was going to be a "sad lonely people being sad and lonely" story. Unless they're particularly well-written, those types of stories don't tend to appeal to me. But what I actually found here was a beautifully realized tale of the desperate human need to connect and feel like someone understands you. Each of the people drawn to John is estranged from most social connections: Mick, because her sensitivity and love for music makes her an oddball among her family and most of her peers, Biff, because he and his wife, who he was estranged from, never had the family he craved, Jake, because he's an actual outsider to the community whose efforts to organize them only alienate them instead, and Dr. Copeland because his education and pride separate him from his children as well as his community. In John, who can only listen and doesn't talk and is kind-hearted, they find the acceptance they covet. For John, though, the only person in his life who can understand him and he can communicate with in sign is Antonopolous, and it therefore it is this bond that John prizes above all others.

It's such an insightful look into the human condition that it's hard to believe Carson McCullers was only 23 when she wrote it. We're a social species, humans. We want to be members of the group. Feeling outside of it, especially when we're teenagers like Mick, is difficult to bear. For the most part, the characters McCullers creates feel real and sympathetic...John himself is really the least plausible character, to so patiently bear the demands on his time and emotional energy that his acolytes demand from him. I found myself wondering why he didn't literally shut the door on them once in a while to get some time to recharge. This novel would be best for fans of character-driven rather than plot-driven stories, because quite little actually "happens" besides the emotional journeys of the people involved. But if you're down for a slower, quieter book, this is really very lovely.

One year ago, I was reading: The Completionist (review to come)

Two years ago, I was reading: Spoiled

Three years ago, I was reading: The Song of Achilles

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