I’ve been a big fan of Charles Bukowski for a good number of years now. He didn’t seem real enthused about many of his contemporaries, which was a shame since I like to bounce from author to author to see what I can find. However, one author he always made sure to mention was Carson McCullers. For years, I intended to check McCullers out based on this.
When I did eventually look into McCullers, I was a bit surprised at Buk’s choice (mind you, I hadn’t read any McCullers at that point). The material in her biographical pages I found just seemed nothing remotely like Bukowski. She didn’t seem the sort to write about bums and winos, whores or skid row motels. But, then I read The Heart is a Lonely Hunter (I also read The Ballad of the Sad Café and Other Stories, but this review isn’t about that book) and it all made sense.
(Note, for those following along in The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favorite Books, this one was 4th for G.D. Gearino.)
For me, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter focuses primarily on what is perhaps one of the most vulnerable and melancholily beautiful aspects of humanity, our inherent loneliness. Even in the crowd, we are ultimately alone. At the same time, we all seem to have a desperate need to have at least one person understand us.
The Heart is a Lonely Hunter concerns a collection of extremely lonely people. Amongst others, we have Biff Brannon (a café owner whose marriage isn’t exactly the best), Mick Kelly (a little girl driven to music but surrounded by poverty), Jake Blount (a man tormented by the capitalistic injustices around him), and Doctor Benedict Mady Copeland (a black doctor tormented by the racial injustices around him). All of these people, living together as they do in a Southern town that is seemingly sleepy but is actually sharply divided by race and money, find themselves irresistibly drawn to a mute engraver by the name of John Singer.
Strangely, all of these people feel an uncontrollable urge to talk to Singer and unburden themselves, tell the things they have never told anyone. Of course, Singer does not talk back, but they each (not knowing of each other) are convinced that Singer is the one person who understands them:
By midsummer Singer had visitors more often than any other person in the house. From his room in the evening there was nearly always the sound of a voice. After dinner at the New York Café he bathed and dressed himself in one of his cool wash suits and as a rule did not go out again. The room was cool and pleasant. He had an icebox in the closed where he kept bottles of cold beer and fruit drinks. He was never busy or in a hurry. And always he met his guests at the door with a welcome smile.
Mick loved to go up to Mister Singer’s room. Even if he was a deaf-and-dumb mute he understood every word she said to him…Except for her Dad, Mister Singer was the nicest man she knew.
When Doctor Copeland wrote the note to John Singer about Augustus Benedict Mady Lewis there was a polite reply and an invitation for him to make a call when he found the opportunity…This man was different from any person of the white race whom Doctor Copeland had ever encountered. Afterward he pondered about this white man a long time. Then later, inasmuch as he had been invited in a cordial manner to return, he made another visit.
Jake Blount came every week….Usually he carried a paper sack of beers. Often his voice would come out loud and angry from the room. But before he left his voice gradually quieted. When he descended the stairs he did not carry the sack of beers and longer, and he walked away thoughtfully without seeming to notice where he was going.
Even Biff Brannon came to the mute’s room one night. But as he could never stay away from the restaurant for long, he left in a half hour.
Of course, these desperate people are all reading things into Singer, as we all do. Singer is not the one person in the world who completely understands. He is polite and glad to have company to attempt to chase away his own loneliness, but sometimes he frankly has no idea what these people are saying. He just nods and smiles.
Interestingly enough, Singer had his own person to whom he poured out his heart just like these people, a mute named Spiros Antonapoulos who has gone somewhat nuts and been locked away in an asylum. These people help him deal with the absence of his friend, but definitely do not replace Antonapoulos. Of course, there is a certain chance that Antonapoulos may not have listened and understood Singer any better than Singer listens to and understands the crew above.
All of this is what I think enchanted Bukowski so much about McCullers, sounding such a similar chord to what I’ve seen in Bukowski’s work, and it enchants me as well. Some find The Heart is a Lonely Hunter depressing (and I will not argue that it has a good amount of tragedy in it). However, I found the striving of these characters or that one significant connection in the face of their loneliness and difficult lives to be extremely moving.
Without sentiment, without pity, McCullers brings us her characters at their most vulnerable and hopeful and ultimately, their most human moments. Whether you find The Heart is a Lonely Hunter to leave you feeling triumphant or depressed, you will be moved. After all, this is the difficultly in which we all live and the best that we can do is try to live it well.