Wow, this is just a beautiful novel. I’m not sure what took me so long to get to it, but this was a nice moment to find it, when I’ve been doing so much driving around through small towns of the South, thinking about tribes and clans, fear of the outsider and the other, whether there’s any warrant for beauty without blood on it. When young Mick Kelly, McCullers’ avatar, wants to absent herself from the physical and cultural poverty that surrounds her, she retreats to a mental space she calls her “inside room,” where she imagines travel to foreign countries, playing symphonies she’s composed for appreciative audiences. I know that room! I’ve been living half my waking moments in it lately. (My preferred fantasy is making photos of the sea in Rotterdam, but you get the idea.)
Mick’s one of four major characters who orbit the absence at the book’s center, a man named Singer who is deaf and dumb. Singer, like The Brother from Another Planet and Chauncey Gardiner, has an obscure interior; he mainly (though not entirely — McCullers does give him one great obsession) serves as a screen for others to project their desires and fears upon. In addition to Mick, the type of sensitive kid who hides in the moonlit shrubbery to listen to music from a radio playing in a fancy house, there’s Jake Blount, a would-be labor activist who can’t persuade the town’s laborers to get as enraged about their oppression as he is. And Biff Brannon, the owner of the New York Diner who creates a safe space for misfits but can’t ever make a human connection with any of them. Most affecting of all is Dr. Copeland, an elderly black doctor with a kid named Karl Marx, who lives a life of uncompromising dignity and service in the tragically mistaken belief that self-respect will lead to respect from others. All four of these idealists are worn down, sometimes slowly and sometimes with sudden violence, by the brute realities of ignorance, indifference, contempt, and cruelty.
McCullers handles her plot, characters, pacing, themes, and all that excellently, but what I really admired here was the book’s openness of attention. Even as she’s running down some pretty programmatic themes — alienation, oppression, etc. — McCullers takes plenty of time, and plenty of pleasure, in describing the smell of the sun on the summer sidewalk, the goodness of delicious food, the feeling of being in an old body, or a young one. There’s a physicality to this world that helps it transcend being merely a brace of socialist parables. Loved it.