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Understanding the queen of Southern gothic fiction

The beauty of Flannery O'Connor's fiction is that it presses oppositions up against one another, sometimes uncomfortably so, in the author's quest for truth: tragedy and comedy, the rough and the sublime, the humble and the divine. Reading this young, Southern, Catholic woman writer -- so many of those adjectives would have served as strike-outs, in her own time and place -- can be a breathless experience: she makes you laugh, discomfits you, makes you think about death and life and God.

Turns out, Flannery O'Connor's own life contained many of those same opposing forces.

Here, in the hands of Brad Gooch, previously the author of a biography of poet Frank O'Hara, comes a seminal study of O'Connor's life: a lengthy, in-depth look at her youth and education, family life, growth as a writer, and artistic maturity.

The timing seems apt. This year marks 45 years since O'Connor's death in the summer of 1964. And, in 2007, a major part of O'Connor's correspondence -- that with her longtime friend, Betty Hester -- was made public in its unedited form for the first time. While certainly not the alpha and omega as a key to understanding O'Connor's life, the letters exchanged with Hester deepen our understanding of the author's views on many topics, not least among them religious faith and conversion. (Hester, who struck up a pen-pal friendship with O'Connor after reading her books, eventually converted to Catholicism, and still later lost much of her fervor for the religion, disappointing O'Connor deeply.)

In Gooch's version, the story of the life of the girl born Mary Flannery O'Connor on March 25, 1925, at St. Joseph's Hospital in Savannah is a story marked -- indeed, pressed -- by time.

The reason is simple. O'Connor, undoubtedly one of the greatest Catholic writers of the 20th century, lived just 39 years. Much of the latter portion of that life was spent on a small farm, Andalusia, in rural Georgia, where O'Connor lived with her mother Regina and struggled to write while battling lupus, the disease that took the life of her father, Edward O'Connor, at age 45. (Although Flannery, being Flannery, put a good spin on her illness: "Sickness before death is a very appropriate thing," she wrote once, "and I think those who don't have it miss one of God's mercies.")

Then again, O'Connor and her family had learned early on that good things don't last. The social and cultural milieu O'Connor was born into -- that of upper-middle-class white Southern gentility -- was one that was disappearing practically from the moment of her birth. While his daughter was toiling at lessons inside rigorous Catholic schools run by nuns, Edward O'Connor found it hard to support his wife and daughter in the Depression-laced 1930s. Eventually, the family had to rely on Regina's family, a much more well-off group, for support.

Flannery never flourished socially; for her, one-on-one ruminations in writing were a far better way to communicate with other human beings than gatherings or parties. But she did do well in school, and especially with the quirky drawings and off-beat stories that she began to create in her spare time. She attended Georgia State College for Women in Milledgeville, then landed at Iowa, where she transferred from journalism classes into the Writers' Workshop, and dropped the "Mary" off the "Flannery" part of her name.

That education, plus a period at Yaddo -- where she met Robert Lowell, another longtime friend -- helped her hone her writing skills to the point where she could guarantee herself (remember those strikeouts again: female, young, unknown, Catholic) a career as a professional writer of fiction.

And what fiction she wrote, however briefly her career flickered. "Wise Blood," "The Violent Bear It Away," "A Good Man Is Hard to Find" -- books that won her legions of readers in all social classes and racial groups, and books that won critical praise as well. In her 32 short stories and two novels, O'Connor created memorable characters who were maimed somehow -- physically, spiritually, emotionally -- and who clashed against the modern world they found themselves in. "You have to push as hard as the age that pushes against you," O'Connor once wrote to Betty Hester, and that was the way her fiction worked, too. By opposition, and with friction.

In years to come, O'Connor's life and newly expanded oeuvre will serve as rich material for all sorts of studies, biographies, and critical essays. Much more remains to be learned about this complicated queen of Southern Gothic fiction. Gooch's book, for instance, while well done in dissecting the minutae of the daily life Flannery lived, does not delve far enough into the author's internal struggles with faith and theology; we see the author going to church, reading the "Summa" of St. Thomas Aquinas, and absorbing the pre-Vatican II spirit of the Roman Catholic Church, but we need to know more about why, and at what cost.

In the meantime, Gooch's book still delivers much of what we want to know about the life of this remarkable woman, in a compact, readable package.

Worth a read, for that reason alone.

Charity Vogel is a News feature reporter.

-mail: cvogel@buffnews.com

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Flannery: A Life of Flannery O'Connor

By Brad Gooch

Little, Brown

416 pages, $30

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