By Alfred Thigpen
Bless her heart. Ann Napolitano has attempted to fictionalize the great Southern writer, Flannery O’Connor, and embed her facsimile in her novel, A Good Hard Look. The reviews are out, as is the book, and people will take what they wish from Napolitano’s voyeuristic story, including the impression that it might actually bear any resemblance to early 1960’s Milledgeville, much less O’Connor.
I grew up in O’Connor’s Milledgeville. My parents owned a discount dry goods store so similar to the one in the film version of Wise Blood that Hazel Motes could just as easily have bought his suit from us. From the store front window I would watch as occasional mule carts driven by old black men vied for the right-of-way with a displaced locomotive that ran down the centerline south toward the state mental asylum. Just one block west of the store was O’Connor’s alma mater, Georgia State College for Women, with its elegant Corinthian columns. You could set your clock by the whistle at Bone’s Brick Yard, or the bugle at Georgia Military College located in the old capitol, the country’s first public neo-gothic building.
To Napolitano, Milledgeville was just another southern town. No such thing. With a population of only 7,500 the former state capital was inhabited by other fascinating historic figures such as longtime U.S. Congressional Representative Carl Vinson, father of the Two-Ocean Navy Act, (which led to the build up of the U.S. Navy before Pearl Harbor) along with the legacy of silent film star Oliver Hardy, a young projectionist at the movie theater where he picked up an idea or two and set a precedent for every other truly gifted local with a future, namely to leave town. Napolitano misses the unique multi-racial tapestry when she digitally remasters O’Connor’s Milledgeville into various shades of white. Yet Milledgeville had a significant Cuban population owing to families of doctors fleeing Fidel Castro to practice medicine at the asylum, and unlike the common perception, black and white residents commonly interacted, whether intimately, out of spite, or both.
Around the corner from my parents’ store was the Campus Theater (circa 1930’s), and above it, the offices of a prominent lawyer, Marion Ennis. During the town’s much-anticipated sesquicentennial in 1953, a local loan shark burst into Ennis’ office and shot him dead. From there, the shooter strode to the law office of Pete Bivins, and likewise murdered him. This wild man is clearly reincarnated as Singleton, an asylum inmate in O’Connor’s short story “Partridge Festival.” There was a major difference in O’Connor’s version. Singleton, a sort of Hannibal Lector precursor, lived to be locked away. When our local madman learned the town’s tough Irish cop was in pursuit, he immediately shot himself. It was the same policeman who once explained to my mother why he sometimes shot people by saying: “That’s how I get my ginger.”
Admittedly, Napolitano is allowed some license, as O’Connor herself did write about local types and places, some more transparently than others. In “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” Red Sammy’s is, to any local, Pat’s Place, a pork barbecue joint located east of Milledgeville. It had a jukebox, a wiggly funhouse mirror, and irresistible barbecue plates. By O’Connor’s own admission, John Wesley (the boy kicking the back of the driver’s seat) is J.L. Sibley Jennings, Jr., who later became a distinguished Washington, DC architect. O’Connor often anti-cast her friends into her stories, and usually they had the sense to understand the humor behind it. Sibley’s only lasting complaint is that O’Connor had another character wearing his “Precious,” his very own parrot-covered shirt of which he was inordinately proud.
In 1964, Sibley Jennings Jr. sent Ms. O’Connor an arrangement of silk flowers, the only type allowable at Baldwin County Hospital’s ICU where O’Connor’s breathing was being closely monitored. Only days later, Jennings found himself head pallbearer at O’Connor’s funeral. After the service and still a little stunned, he checked his post office box. In it was a letter written in a hand he knew well. It read, “Thank you for the permanent flowers from a permanent friend.”
I talked recently to Sibley Jennings and Dr. James O. Tate, a Milledgeville native and English Professor at Dowling College in New York. They still speak of O’Connor in fond but reverent tones. There is, after all, a growing laity push for O’Connor’s canonization in the Catholic Church. Understanding O’Connor the person is better arrived at by reading her numerous correspondences in A Habit of Being. My biggest complaint about the portrayal of O’Connor was her pettiness in Napolitano’s book. But more importantly, she was the personification of what it meant to be a practicing Pre-conciliar Catholic. The idea that she would be seen in public with a married man, much less jealous of his wife and child, is beyond poetic license.
The peacock that graces the front of Napolitano’s book serves as a reminder of her portrayal of my Milledgeville. Napolitano’s peafowl are velociraptors in drag, able to crush vital organs and possessing the agility and body mass of great apes. Their screeches are so prodigious that they carry from the north of town to five miles south through the brick walls of the asylum. Obviously, this did not happen, but it is typical of the same skewed reality that Napolitano has applied to the town of my childhood. Bless her heart.
Editor's disclaimer: A longtime writer friend of mine, Alfred Thigpen is the author of Trapped in the Body Jesus (details here). Alfred currently resides in suburban Washington D.C. where he freelances music reviews for The Washington Post. Ultimately, he’d like to see someone do an annotation of O’Connor’s works.