A Good Hard Look
A Novel of Flannery O'Connor
Forced by illness to leave behind a successful life as a writer in New York, Flannery O’Connor has returned to her family farm in Milledgeville, Georgia. She desires a quiet, solitary existence, but her mother, Regina, drags Flannery to the wedding of a family friend.
The embodiment of southern womanhood, Cookie Himmel is Flannery’s antithesis and has returned from her time in Manhattan to marry rich fiancé, Melvin Whiteson. Lona Waters, a dutiful housewife, is hired by Cookie to help create a perfect home, but when she is given an opportunity to remember what it feels like to be truly alive, and she seizes it with both hands.
In the course of one tragic afternoon, these characters must take a good hard look at the choices they have made and face up to O’Connor’s observation that “the truth does not change according to our ability to stomach it.”
The peacocks tilted their heads back and bellowed and hollered their desires into the night. They snapped their shimmering tails open and shut like fans. Behind each male’s pointy head, a green-bronze arch unfurled, covered with a halo of gazing suns. The females brayed and shook their less-attractive tails in return.
The birds didn’t care that it was the middle of the night, and they didn’t care who they were disturbing. They didn’t care that there was a wedding tomorrow, or that the groom, who had just arrived from New York City, was lying beneath a lace canopy at his in-laws’ house, paralyzed with fear. They didn’t care that his fiancée startled awake in the next room and toppled out of her high bed, and they certainly didn’t care that her face hit a stool on the way down. They didn’t care that the rest of the small Georgia town was also awake, twitching in their beds like beached fish.
The peacocks were not out to make friends. They were out to do what they liked, when they liked. They chose this particular time on this particular night for the same reason they chose to eat the fl owers in the side garden the moment they bloomed. They preferred roses and hyacinths, but deigned to eat tulips as well. They had claimed every inch of the farm, which meant the wide expanse of lawn in front of the farmhouse shimmered under a layer of white refuse.
The peacocks chased the peahens across the crunchy grass, short legs thrusting, three-pronged feet grabbing at the dirt. The females stole glances over their shoulders. Fans were unfolded and then gathered back close. White, yellow, and green eyes stared out from the feathers, ogling the darkness.
The males covered the ground with improbable speed. They trampled grass and hay and hopped onto the white fence that lined the property. The wooden beams objected, leaning beneath the sudden weight. The birds puffed out their chests. They opened their beaks and screamed. They sustained the noise until a lone flower fell from the magnolia tree. The petals drifted, reluctant and aromatic, to the ground.I
n the center of town, Melvin and Cookie huddled together on the floor of her room. They spoke in rushed whispers designed to fit between the bouts of noise.
“I hit my eye,” she said. “I hit it hard.”
Cookie’s window was open. Enough moonlight coated the scene for Melvin to see that her right eye had already puffed up; it looked like a knuckled fist ready to throw a punch. A dark pink stain spread across the skin.
“How bad is it?” she asked.
“It’s fine. It’s nothing.”
“I can feel it throbbing. Oh my God, I’ll look terrible tomorrow.”
“You’ll look beautiful. You always do,” Melvin said. He meant this. He had met her on a park bench in the city several months earlier, and since that moment had never seen her look anything less than perfect. He almost didn’t believe that the bruise existed, even as he watched it grow and deepen.
Cookie didn’t hear him. Something occurred to her, and she gazed at him with fresh panic. “Is it after midnight?”
Melvin looked down at his bare wrist. His watch was back in the guest room, lying on the night table. “I think so. It must be.”
“You’re not supposed to see me until the altar. This is bad luck!”
He wanted to reply, but the noise was unrelenting. It plowed through the walls. It crowded the room.
Cookie sobbed and cupped a hand over her eye. She reached out for Melvin with the other. She was glad she wasn’t alone in this dark room, which had become, after an absence of almost three years, strangely unfamiliar. She hoped that returning home had been the right decision. She hoped that asking Melvin to move here had been the right decision. Cookie had never fallen out of bed in her life. Her eye pulsed against her palm. She thought about her wedding dress and she thought about tomorrow, which was also, apparently, today.
The warm air was thick with the smell of magnolia blossoms. Cookie shuddered. A single scream, louder than the others, shot like a firecracker into the sky.
Her body unlatched, like a young girl’s diary sprung open by a pin. She leaned closer to Melvin and laid her head against his chest.
He could feel her heart racing beneath her thin nightgown. He couldn’t hear anything above the screams. Melvin tried, in vain, to organize his thoughts. Cookie had said that peacocks were making this noise. He believed her, but at the same time he couldn’t. This noise—this incredible din—could surely not be made by beaked, feathered birds. The entire town must be awake around them; only the deaf or the extremely drunk could sleep through this cacophony, and if that was the case, how could it be allowed to carry on? Someone needs to shut this down, he thought. Where are the police? The peacock wranglers? Who’s in charge here?
Cookie’s breath hit Melvin’s bare chest in quick, warm puffs. She tilted her head back. She looked like she had something to say.
The cries perforated the air. The ruthless sound fragmented the darkness and splintered Cookie and Melvin’s thoughts. They lost coherence, and articulacy. They wished they could escape. They wished they knew what to do. They not only wanted the screams to stop, they wanted to make them stop. A force was pushing against them, and their instinct was to push back.
Melvin looked at Cookie and her radiating eye.
“Please,” she said.
He knitted his fingers through her hair and kissed her so hard they both slid a few inches across the floor.
When he pulled away, she tugged him closer.
“You should go back to your room,” she said.
Another lock was picked, this time within Melvin, and he pushed her white nightgown up her thighs. His breath was thick in his throat. He inhaled flowers and Cookie’s skin and the dirt from a farm he had never laid eyes on. The birds seemed to be screaming at him now. They were taunting him, goading him, trying to pick a fight. Come on, they yelled. Do it! What are you made of?
Melvin’s hands swept up and down Cookie’s back. He wanted to leave himself and crawl into her. He wanted to block the screams out. He wanted to hurt Cookie with kisses. He felt dizzy, and somehow, somewhere, wounded. He pulled on Cookie, and she pulled back. They scrambled against each other. It seemed conceivable to both of them, in the darkness, that this noise, and this night, might never end.
“My parents,” she whispered.
“They won’t hear. No one can hear anything.”
Cookie’s fingertip traced a figure eight against his shoulder. “It is technically our wedding day,” she said, as much to herself as anyone. The skin around her right eye tinted purple, on its way to every color in the rainbow. Melvin tugged her nightgown over her head. She didn’t know where to put her hands. The man and the woman, intertwined, shimmied to their feet and fell onto the bed.
“Why won’t they just be quiet?” Cookie said, and was surprised by how loud and unattractive her voice sounded.
This had not been her plan, and she was a young woman who lived by plans. If she did this—no, as she did this, because it was happening, his lips were pressing her bruise and she was crying out in a confused medley of pain and pleasure—who would that make her be?
Any evidence of her distress was lost on Melvin. He felt dwarfed, in yet another canopied bed, by the size of his own expectations. There was a grit of shame caught beneath his fingernails as he gripped Cookie’s soft, white thigh. He knew he would not sleep again that night; he wouldn’t even try. Melvin batted his fiancée around the bed as if she were a firefly he was trying to catch in a bottle, while the birds roared in the distance.
“To brand this a quaint period piece…would be doing Napolitano’s evocative tale of friendship and community a disservice.” — Entertainment Weekly
“Ann Napolitano’s novel, A Good Hard Look, with O’Connor occupying a central role, does the Georgia author proud. Be prepared to like this book. It’s complicated and peacock-haunted and strange…’ Does one’s integrity ever lie in what he’s unable to do?’ O’Connor once asked. At the heart of Napolitano’s brave book lies that question: the mysteries of freedom, its price, and the unmarked paths we take to get there.” — Atlanta Journal
“From almost the first page, this novel seemed real. I could feel, somehow, the characters’ seemingly pre-ordained retreat from grace as a deceptively simple plot unfolded in Milledgeville, Ga., where O’Connor returned to live out her final days in the early 1950s…. This narrative is a great story, almost light at times, often very funny—but always with the knowledge that this propped-up happiness too shall end…. there will be survivors, and they will find a touch more grace in their lives. What is less obvious is that Napolitano will somehow make you one of those survivors thinking about your own rocky road to redemption.” — Jackson Free Press
“The fact that an at-her-prime, seriously ill Flannery O’Connor is one of its main characters, while it might have overwhelmed a lesser novel, doesn’t drown this one; Napolitano doesn’t seek to emulate O’Connor’s style (other than by being, also, pointedly southern), but crafts, though characters (stunt-cast or no) her own powerful argument for living honestly…muggy, deeply enthralling, and worth a read.” — Booklist
“Napolitano doesn’t attempt to mimic Flannery O’Connor’s writing style, turning instead to her own lyric take on the human condition. She’s not written a biography of Flannery, though the character is well rooted in research….While [Flannery's] interaction is key to the story, she is a catalyst. One cannot imagine the novel without her, but she is just one in a cast of fully fleshed- out and entrancing characters.”— Denver Post
What drew you to write a novel centered around Flannery O'Connor? What were the most interesting challenges/pleasures in writing about such an extraordinary literary figure? How much research did you do for the novel?
When I started A Good Hard Look, I had no idea Flannery O'Connor would come anywhere near the novel. If you'd told me she would be one of the characters, I would have said you were crazy. I had no aspiration to write historical fiction and I hadn't read any of Flannery's work in about a decade.
Initially, the book was about a character called Melvin Whiteson who lived in New York City in the present day. I had the idea of this very wealthy man who'd been given every opportunity, but didn't know what to do with those opportunities. I was interested in the question of how people choose to live their lives. The novel wasn't working though; I think Melvin was more of an idea than a character. It was about a year into the book that Flannery O'Connor showed up out of the bluecreatively speakingthough in hindsight, I can see that she embodies for me this idea of a "life well-lived". Her appearance changed everything, of course. The time period, the setting, the heartbeat of the novel. I think she also provided the contrast that Melvin required to come to life as a character, and really, to shape the rest of the narrative.
As a writer, her arrival both excited and terrified me. My dual fearwhich I carried throughout the remainder of the writing processwas that I would portray Flannery inaccurately, or that I would do her a disservice by writing a mediocre book. To conquer the first fear, I did a lot of research. I read everything I could get my hands on. I re-read Flannery's stories, her essays and two novels; I read the one existing biography on her, and several critical essays about her work; I flew to Atlanta, rented a car and drove to Milledgeville. I visited Andalusia, her farm (which is now a museum) and walked all over town. I was only there for about thirty hours, but that visit was crucial. Milledgeville had to be real to me, so I could make it real for the reader. Sitting on Flannery's front porch, and smelling the air thereI don't think I could have re-created her world without spending that time in her space.
To conquer the second fear, I wrote and re-wrote and re-wrote and then re-wrote some more. I worked on this book for seven years in total, and that's because I had to make sure Flannery was as true as possible, and that the book that contained her was not terrible.
Has Flannery O'Connor been a major influence on your own work?
The short answer to that is yes, but not in the way you might think. The truth is that Flannery's non-fiction has had a much larger influence on my work than her fiction. I fell in love with Flannery's letters during college, when I was assigned The Habit of Being. I can't recommend that book highly enough; her letters are wonderfulthey're irreverent, sarcastic, insightful, and wise. Flannery is accessible, and even sweet in a way you'd never guess from her fiction. So the letters drew me in, but my connection to her deepened because the content of the letters spoke directly to the circumstances of my life. Flannery chronicled her battle with lupus; when I read the letters, I was also sick. I'd been diagnosed with the Epstein-Barr virus, an auto-immune disease, six months earlier. As it turned out, I would be ill for the next three years, and the symptoms had already dissembled my highly active, twenty-year-old life.
Reading those letters, I had what Oprah would probably call an "A-ha moment". Flannery wrote about coming to terms with her changed situation, and deciding to focus her limited energy where it would matter moston her writing. I consciously sized up my own life in a similar manner. I had always loved writing, but I lacked the confidence to declare myself a writer. After I graduated, I planned to work in publishing, or something book-related. I would surround myself with other people's words, and maybe write on my own in secret, as a hobby. But my illness, and Flannery's example, offered up a new clarity. I was able to appreciate, in a way my obnoxiously healthy twenty-year-old peers couldn't, the real brevity of life. I could see how important it was to make each moment meaningful, and to make my life matter somehow. Because of Flannery, I decided to become a writer. So, yes, she is the major influence behind everything I write.
Flannery O'Connor, as she appears in your novel and in her own writing, seems able to see through people's facades, to penetrate to the depths of who they really are. The illustration for your website shows x-ray views of people on the streets of New York City. Is this kind of x-ray vision an essential skill for a novelist to have?
It certainly helps. I'm fascinated by peopletheir character quirks, the way they speak, and most of all their stories, both the ones they tell and the ones they hide. I can meet someone at a party and speak to them for ten minutes, and then startle them years later when I recall verbatim the anecdote they told me at the party. I simply love stories, and I love trying to tease out the riddle of what makes a particular person tick. Writing fiction allows me to explore humanity, and that's one of the things I love most about it.
You describe the peacocks several times as doing what they please rather than trying to please others. "The peacocks were not out to make friends. They were out to do what they liked, when they liked" [p. 3]. Did you intend for the peacocks to have a particular symbolic value in the novel?
No. I really don't know what to say about the peacocks' symbolic value. I'm too close to the story; I don't have the perspective. I didn't write them to represent something, but that doesn't mean they don't. I look forward to hearing what other people think about the peacocks; I know the readers will be a lot wiser in this area than me.
All I can say with certainty is that I loved writing about the birds in every waytheir visual beauty, their take-no-prisoners attitude, their noise. Each scene they showed up in, they took over in the best kind of way. The peacocks were a joy to Flannery in her life, and they were a pleasure for me in the book.
Did you know how the novel would end when you began or did it take new directions as you were writing it?
Like I said earlier, I worked on the novel for a year before Flannery even showed up. So, in the beginning I knew almost nothing. Once Flannery was in the book, I figured the peacocks would play a role in the ending, but I didn't know anything more specific than that. I wrote many, many drafts, and headed in many different directions while writing this book. Imagine a tangential story line for A Good Hard Look, and I probably wrote (and deleted) it at least once.
When asked whether universities stifled writers, Flannery O'Connor famously remarked: "My view is that they don't stifle enough of them." How helpful was your experience at the creative writing program at New York University? Are our MFA programs turning out too many writers?
I love that quote. My MFA experience had two distinct positives: 1) I had the chance to study under a brilliant teacher, the writer Dani Shapiro. I still have her voice in my head (in a good way) when I write. 2) I met two writers in the programHannah Tinti and Helen Elliswith whom I still meet regularly to critique one another's work. They are the first sets of eyes that see any draft of my writing. I wouldn't even want to guess how many times they read A Good Hard Look. I dedicated the book to them, and frankly, they earned it.
So, my basic take on MFA programs is that they are expensive, and not necessary to become a writer, but they can certainly be helpful in various ways.
What are you working on now?
I've started taking notes on a novel, which is a new experience for me. I've never tried to plot or plan before beginning a book, so I'm finding it to be an interesting (and frustrating, and hopefully rewarding) experience. The book is inspired by a news story I was obsessed with last year, but that's all I can say at this point.
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