By Alyson Hagy
Featured Art: Pasturage by André Dunoyer de Segonzac
Besides the neutral expression that she wore when she was alone, Mrs. Freeman had two others, forward and reverse, that she used for all her human dealings. Her forward expression was steady and driving like the advance of a heavy truck. Her eyes never swerved to left or right but turned as the story turned as if they followed a yellow line down the center of it. . . .
—“Good Country People,” Flannery O’Connor
I’m sorry to say I’ve experienced my share of bible salesmen. And I can’t think of the names Joy or Hulga without wincing with delight. But why have I never gotten over the way O’Connor begins “Good Country People”?
I blame front porches.
My father was a country doctor back in the days of barter and house calls. He visited patients at their homes, day or night. Sometimes he took us (four kids, wife) with him. We weren’t allowed inside those homes. That territory was professionally sacred. But the hill wives might come onto their flyblown porches to exchange a greeting. The encounters could be awkward. Isolation and poverty went hand in hand, and it was difficult to accept a piece of pie or a pickle from someone who had very little to give. The exchanges could also, on occasion, be wickedly comic since some of those women would stand on those slanted stairs in their faded aprons and tell my mother patently untrue things they believed she wanted to hear.
“Well, ain’t that a car full of polite children” or “I believe you done shrunk some since I seen you last” or “Dr. Hagy says my pound cake can’t hold a church candle to yourn.”
My mother was good at smiling.
I was struck by the contradictions embedded in those brief conversations. I began to imagine what went on beyond those porches. How did the network of fibs and exaggerations work inside those homes? Why did adults, especially those careworn, big-knuckled women, commit to versions of the truth both in- tractable and unsustainable? And did they have any idea how funny they could be?
I was somehow beginning to think like a writer. It was years before I dis- covered those wives in fiction—thanks to a professor who introduced me to O’Connor. They seemed utterly familiar to me from the start, bossy and filled with prejudice, mothers of the rural characters I began to scratch out on my own.
O’Connor sometimes enters her stories through a kind of “porch”— a stub- by piece of narrative architecture that leads into a sequence of dark and sardonic rooms. “Good Country People” begins (and ends) with Mrs. Freeman even though Joy/Hulga is at the ultimate heart of the tale. I really like that. It’s an oblique move. Not-quite-traditional. As wry as the author herself. O’Connor’s characters are always happy to deliver the truth without any “swerve.” Still, I can’t help pondering how her great stories often do cross the “yellow lines” of structure and how her art is all the stronger for it.
Alyson Hagy is the author of seven works of fiction, including the novel Boleto (Graywolf Press, 2012). She lives and works in Laramie, Wyoming.
Originally published in NOR 15