Carson McCullers wrote her debut novel, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, when she was 23, which is both amazing and enraging; the vast majority of us don't get to produce a masterpiece when we're that young (you know, if ever). The plot revolves around a collection of characters in a small town: Mick, the tomboy who takes care of her younger siblings and yearns to make music; John Singer and Spiros Antonapoulous, both mutes; Jake Blount, a drinker who's wandered into town seeking a job as a laborer; Biff Brannon who owns a cafe; and Dr. Benedict Mady Copeland, an African-American physician with ambition, brains, and ideology but whose disdain for his own race is profound.
Basically, McCullers managed to pour the entirety of America in the 1930s into a relatively short novel. Gender, sexuality, class, race, religion — all of it is packed into this book, yet, somehow, you never feel like you've been zonked on the head with a history lesson. It's part of her incredible skill. The novel can be read as a political and socially critical — but it can also be read as simply a novel, one that's a beautifully written about people feeling and living and being.
I've reread it so many times, but I never get bored. And here's what I feel every time I go from cover to cover:
John Singer and Spiros Antonapoulous are an odd couple. John loves talking to Spiros, but Spiros only likes drinking and eating. Why does John love this man so much?
Biff runs the cafe with his wife, and they seem to hate one another. They switch off shifts; he works at night and she in the daytime. Biff sees everyone and everything and everyone, including John Singer convince a thoroughly drunk Blount to spend the night in his apartment and sleep it off.
Mick! Mick the awesome arrives and she goes into an abandoned house (she's supposed to be taking care of her brothers) and writes the word "PUSSY" in big letters on a wall because it's a bad word and she wants to feel powerful. I feel you, tomboygirl. I feel you.
Jake Blount wakes up in Singer's room and goes to find a job. Singer, by the by, lives in Mick's house, which he users to rent rooms out to a few tenants because they're extremely poor. Blount finds a job but he also goes OFF on this little dude talking about Jesus. I feel like Blount isn't the greatest guy, though he's obviously very secure in his Marxist convictions.
Dr. Copeland is obviously brilliant. He's named his children after literary and historical characters (Portia, from Shakespeare; Karl Marx, from, well, Karl Marx; and Hamilton, after that Alexander H. guy) and he believes in the betterment of black people. But he also says, "The Negro race of its own accord climbs up on the cross every Friday." He looks down on his children and what they do in life, and sees himself as superior.
Mick is super-elated all summer. She's half in love with John Singer, she suddenly gets that her parents aren't just parents but people, and she promenades with Harry, her Jewish politics-obsessed neighbor. They're so cute.
Biff's wife dies, and his niece is a show-offy little brat (it's Biff's sister-in-law who's at fault for this annoying niece). Biff opens the cafe only a day after his wife's funeral but now he's going to have to be up all the time. He's a good man, always watching out for Mick (though she begins to think he's creepy at a certain point. My analysis has always been that they both have issues with the genders they were born into, and that Biff can see this while Mich stifles it). But the cafe is his only real companion now.
For John Singer in particular. Everyone in town is starting to use him as their crutch. He's the silent therapist in a way, non-judgmental, listens to everyone with a vague smile but not really understanding what any of them want from him. All he wants is to visit his friend and maybe lover, but he needs to save money up to do so.
Mick's little brother accidentally shoots Biff's niece, in the head no less, and pandemonium ensues. Mick's brother thinks he's going to get arrested and die, no one knows if he little girl is going to live, and though she does live and he isn't arrested, nothing is the same ever again.
Poor Dr. Copeland. He's weak, and he's still trying to preach to the African American community in his neighborhood about the "right" way they should be doing things. They trust him because he is a physician but they don't take his speech very seriously. They are content to work and do not have the same measure of pride as he does. He's dying of tuberculosis, thinks he's changing the world, but in reality, he just isn't.
Singer goes to visit Spiros, and it's so, so sad. He tries to tell him about everything that's been happening, about the people who keep visiting him in his apartment, and Spiros only cares about the gifts he's been brought: a projector of movie reels. Over the previous months, Singer wrote to Spiros and sent him countless gifts, so Spiros is outfitted like a king and watches the cartoons projected to the room happily. Singer clearly adores him, but why? What has he ever gotten in return? Perhaps Spiros smiling is the only reward he needs.
Mick and Harry have sex. Yes. Mick and Harry have sex. After a long bike ride, a bottle of beer each, and skinny dipping. And that's that for their romance. Neither was ready, but Mick suddenly ages after this episode, and everything becomes terrible.
Singer tries to visit Spiros, only to find that he's dead. He's dead, and no one alerted his only friend and contact. Singer's reaction is almost immediate suicide. Mick has a job and is depressed and dressed for work in skirt and blouse and pantyhose she hates (rather than her earlier usual outfit of shorts and t-shirt). Jake Blount leaves town after he dove into a violent fight and is in trouble yet again. And Biff, the ever-present, ever-watching Biff, is still in his cafe, still watching, still waiting for life to continue going in this small, ordinary town.
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