I’ve long been fascinated by Carson McCullers and finally it was the right time to pull this novel off the shelf. Even a cursory glance at McCullers biography reveals that she led a life beset by tragedy and illness. A misdiagnosed case of rheumatic fever as a teenager led to strokes later in life that eventually killed her at the age of 50. Her tumultuous marriage to James McCullers ended with his suicide (he tried to talk her into a double suicide). Despite such traumas McCullers managed to produce quality work that included poetry, plays, short stories and novels.
The quality of The Heart is a Lonely Hunter suggests that McCullers was one of those rare writers who tackled big issues whilst being free from the excesses inherent in such polemical narratives. McCullers beautiful but pared down style provides an excellent narrative framework to explore the inner psychological worlds of her characters. Her writing subtly draws you into the characters lives and then manipulates you into caring deeply about what happens to them.
The novel opens with the description of two friends who are mutes – Spiro Antonapoulos and John Singer. They live in a mid-sized southern American town. Their relationship is central to the novel, even though Spiro spends long periods as a peripheral figure. As the novel unfolds an ensemble of characters are introduced. The Afro American doctor Benedict Copeland works tirelessly for the improvement of not just the health of his fellow Afro Americans but also of their political status. A teenage girl - Mick Kelly, yearns for the freedom of a life of travel and music; she is also apparently based on McCullers own life. The mysterious Biff Brannon runs the all night New York Café in which many of the characters meet. Then there’s Jake, a barely restrained alcoholic at odds with the state of America who flirts with communism. These characters all coalesce around Singer, who despite being a mute earns their respect and friendship.
The manner in which McCullers weaves together the stories of this disparate group of characters builds significant narrative power. Dr Copeland is a particularly compelling character, through which McCullers explores the trials and sorrows of racism. Copeland’s Christmas speech to his people, of which is an attempt to help them realize just what the struggles in their lives mean in the wider context of history and politics, is one of the highlights of the novel.
Mick Kelly is an engaging and sympathetic character. Her insightful notion of having an inside room and an outside room when it comes to dealing with life is particularly telling. Her emotional life, with all its yearnings and frustrations, perfectly crystallizes just what it must be like to be a teenage girl. As the novel progresses Mick becomes a character in transformation and just where she ends up helps create a significant part of the emotional impact of the novel’s conclusion.
The novel is aptly titled, with each character looking to other people to fill an emptiness or need within them that simply can’t be resolved on their own. Most of this focus is on Singer, whose silence lends a sympathetic and stoic air to his personality. Essentially The Heart is a Lonely Hunter is a brilliant examination of what it means to be an outsider with a need to communicate and connect with someone who understands. It is the loners, radicals, dispossessed, persecuted and downright confused who somehow find solace in friendship with Singer.
With Singer positioned as a savior it is especially poignant when McCullers turns her attention to his inner emotional world. His loneliness, his confusion and his hopes for the future are revealed as he makes his long walks around the town. It is through the life of Singer that McCullers deftly presents a subtle subtext that involves a minority that had no voice and had to stay underground during that era. The manner in which she presents this subtext has implications throughout the whole novel, and would, as suggested by the blurb on the back cover, make The Heart is a Lonely Hunter a rewarding book to re-read.
Although The Heart is a Lonely Hunter has a satisfying plot, it is the brilliance of the characters that really make this novel. Despite the novel having been written in the 1930s these characters are universal, transcending time and place to be relevant for modern readers. McCullers wrote superbly about the human condition and I’m still thinking about this book two weeks after finishing it. In the canon of American literature both McCullers and The Heart is a Lonely Hunter are highly regarded and justly so, and now she’s also included amongst my favourite writers of all time.