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the heart is a lonely hunter

9 May 2004

I have mixed feelings about reviewing Carson McCullers' Heart is a Lonely Hunter in the context of its selection for the Oprah Book Club. Many of our impressions of an artwork depend on the other artworks we see grouped around it. In a lot of ways, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter is an archetypal Oprah book. It's relatively plotless; it's centered instead on strongly-drawn characters; those characters are searingly unhappy and just get unhappier; and at the end, a remnant of life-goes-on at the core of the survivors offers us some scant hope, even in a deeply unsatisfying universe.

Just like a lot of other Oprah books, in other words, except that it was written long before Oprah was born, by a 22-year-old writer; it was a first novel that won immediate acclaim in an American literary scene dominated by Dos Passos, Faulkner, Steinbeck, Cather. Richard Wright praised Heart extravagantly; May Sarton was thrilled; Tennessee Williams would go on to compare McCullers to Melville.

In other words, this ain't your standard mid-list tearjerker. McCullers said of her apparent plotlessness that "The form is contrapuntal throughout. Like a voice in a fugue each one of the main characters is an entirety in himself–but his personality takes on a new richness when contrasted and woven in with the other characters in the book." One of her characters, Mick Kelly, is an aspiring composer who wonders at the miracle of orchestration; another, the deaf-mute Singer, is the keynote that all the others refer back to, each one seeing in Singer something different, something private. When the main characters all meet at once in Singer's room, they clash in discord; when they interact with him alone, they find new depths in themselves.

Of course, one reader's intricate contrapuntal construction is another reader's pointless mélange. I'm not sure that the general aimlessness and despair of McCullers' novel is entirely redeemed by its careful harmonic arrangement. After a while, you know for certain that every time one of her central characters gets his or her hopes up, they will be dashed with cruel irony. The novel is a little too easy to predict and thus a little hard to take.

But if you remember that this is a first novel, it can seem miraculous; in fact, it's hard to think of a better novel written by a younger writer. The prose is clean, utterly assured, and under tremendous control. The style of The Heart is a Lonely Hunter makes Cather look loose, Hemingway look baroque, and Steinbeck look coy.

At the heart of Lonely Hunter is one of the finest descriptions of love in American fiction. The novel's main reflector-character, Singer, is beloved by nearly everyone, but the only person he loves is his fellow deaf-mute, Antonapoulos. The flaw in this love is that Antonapoulos is unable to reciprocate it – in fact, unable to relate socially to anyone. We never see Antonapoulos' point of view, and perhaps there's no point of view to see. We see instead that Singer loves him unconditionally. The scene where Singer visits the institutionalized Antonapoulos and brings short cartoon films for him to watch from his bed is hard to take in a different sense than I meant earlier: it is a scene of unbearable poignancy.

[Note: I am aware that I didn't review One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez. Sorry. What's to say, exactly: central imaginative work of world's greatest living novelist, creation of a mythical fictional universe worthy of Faulkner. And of the Oprah lineage in that it lacks an overall plot and is focussed instead on multigenerational disaster. But supreme of its kind.]

[UPDATE 7.05.04: The new summer Oprah book is Anna Karenina. I am so not about to spend all summer reading that one. I read it once. I remember it has a train somewhere in it.]

McCullers, Carson. The Heart is a Lonely Hunter. 1940. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2000.