Jennifer (aka EM)'s Reviews > The Heart is a Lonely Hunter

The Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers
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's review
Oct 29, 2011

it was amazing
bookshelves: lonely-hearts-club, to-re-read
Read from December 15 to 27, 2013

ETA: my rating has gone all over the map as I've struggled to pin down my response to this book. See comment #5 for context of why this book is now rated 5! Sheesh.


Original review (Dec 27, 2013): There were parts of this I liked; not least of which is the melancholy ache it left in me, which I can only attribute to the quality of the writing, the atmosphere McCullers creates and the characters she brings to life.

Holy hell, this book is sad.

I loved Mick’s descriptions of what music meant to her; how she felt hearing it; the longing she had to “write it.” I loved her outlandish dreams and her inside and outside worlds.

I liked how all these characters circle Singer like planets around an uncaring, uncomprehending sun.

There’s something niggling at me, though, about this book, something not sitting well with me; something not resonating.

I think this book is just a little too existential even for me.

I can recognize its artistry at the same time that that artistry feels a little shallow, and a lot purposeless.

Part of me says, m’eh. I like a cast of quirky, eccentric Southern characters – and these are done up well. But there must be more to it than this.

Even Mick – the one whose ‘coming of age’ story this really is – doesn’t really come into anything. Her big finish is a kind of denouement. Her dreams are dashed, but not in any dramatic climax, rather in an inexorable narrowing of opportunities until, there she is with runs in her stockings working in Woolworth’s.

Poignant, yes. Bittersweet, yes. But nothing really happens; nothing full out blossoms or bursts. It feels one note to me.

Southern gothic and I rarely get on well together. It’s kind of like a whole lot of what I love – eccentricity and the grotesque in characterization; social issues laid bare in all their unsentimental glory; a sense of past and impending doom – gets baked up together into not a layered masterpiece, but a lumpy, undercooked mess.

It’s like looking into the heart of darkness solely for the purpose of looking into the heart of darkness, to view it in all its festering decay, to document it, to say “I was there and I survived looking at it” while retaining that sense of observational distance. The drive-by accident scene. The grainy Holocaust photos. I get the fascination. I get the adrenalin rush of horror and the sweet salve of it’s-not-me-or-anyone-I-know relief.

For me, there’s a lack of purpose or closure in it, or any sense that there’s a moral to the story beyond “life’s a bitch and then you die.” First, you suffer. Then you die. Or you don’t; you just live a life of unremarkable plainness.

These kinds of stories really are just a place for the characters to be fleshed out: for all that they are (and this is a fabulous set of quirky, eccentric, full-of-potential characters), they aren’t given a plot in which they can fulfill their potential. Even punctuated by scenes of trauma or violence, the characters themselves absorb the punches and don't change or effect change.

That's what she's saying - that these characters are powerless and ineffectual - but there's an irony here: she makes them so damn apathetic, so ineffectual, that I - as a reader - become just as apathetic in response.

It seems that McCullers is too good at her own game.

The characters and their pointlessness are the point, but it's not enough for me. It's enervating. They are the guns introduced in Act One that never go off.

And even when [the gun] does go off, it’s a bang and a whimper, and Baby never gets to be beauty queen but, oh well, the chances of that happening were pretty slim anyway, weren’t they?

These characters drift into plot points and then drift back out as seamlessly and quietly as kudzu takes over abandoned railroad tracks.

Their cafés serve endless meals to empty souls who are acutely observed.

The café’s owner – who is quite possibly a pedophile – replaces the cellophane-wrapped, fly-encrusted dinner special on display in the plate-glass window with an artfully-arranged vase of flowers.

The black medical doctor-revolutionary (view spoiler)goes quietly and tubercularly crazy and is shipped off to a relative’s farm in a wagon led by a 19-year old mule who has worked and lived on that farm, even given a sun hat to wear when it’s hot. For a mule, 19 years is a long time to work and suffer and live – even with a sun hat and a kind owner.

The point being that these people are mules, no more no less, and you don’t have to be an agitating Commie labour organizer to know that’s wrong, just plain wrong, and sad too – but my point is that the mule is given about equal treatment in terms of focus and paragraphs to the black doctor's estranged son.

It's all conveyed at about the same emotional pitch.

There is a weird sort of genius in that, and in using the flat affect, the lack of any modulation in drama or plot, to illustrate how absolutely impotent these characters are to change their circumstances, even when they know – they have the one true purpose – and want nothing more than to change it.

Another gun goes off, this time into the heart of the heart of the lonely hunter.

And that relentless, interminable sense of ennui – muggy and hot – descends.

Despite all their protesting, their random acts, their talking talking talking at someone who can’t hear them, nothing happens. Things go on much like they were.

There is no sense for anything having changed as a result of the story being told or having happened.

So, I'm left sad ... and I'm left admiring a piece of writing that ultimately feels as empty and lonely as the lives it describes.

And that's great, I guess.

It’s not for me, this Southern gothic, is what I think.

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Reading Progress

12/15/2013 marked as: currently-reading 4 comments
12/27/2013 marked as: read

Comments (showing 1-17 of 17) (17 new)

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message 1: by mitzi morris (new)

mitzi morris A work of art. Yes like Faulkner not for everyone as it's always regional and about the close connections to the land and of course The South. Lonely not empty as it describes alienation in regional and interior terms. A POWERHOUSE of angst.

Jennifer (aka EM) Yo, Dec-2013-joined-gr Mitzi.

Stop yelling. I can hear you.

You have a different opinion, and you love the book. Good for you.

Travelin You have an exceptional way with words, aka EM. I gave this book a 5, but knew the ending was too fatalistic but didn't bother remembering how. You've buried the ending here. The famous Southern Gothic I've read has also been a real letdown. It's full of moist people who are stuck together against their wills, like churchgoers in a thatch-roofed church, say, somewhere in Ireland. Faulkner I can skip entirely, even if he isn't quite as moist. Flannery O'Connor and possibly Confederacy of Dunces are the only exceptions I know of.

Jennifer (aka EM) "moist people" hahahaha - that is such a perfect description!

Call me crazy, but I feel compelled to untangle the knot of Southern Gothic and figure out why some of it works for me (and I mean *really* well), and some of it just, I can't, I can't even ... you know.

It occurs to me now, with your comment, that I never dislike the same kind of bleakness or "moist people" when they are anywhere outside of the U.S. South. Give me Southern Canadian gothic any day! Give me Indian (as in SE Asian) gothic! Give me Irish gothic! Give me bleakness, hopelessness, helplessness at a magnitude of ten - The Sheltering Sky, A Fine Balance, The Slaves of Solitude.

So that tells me that it has something to do with the portrayal of racism that sets me off.

I think when I see pain shown, as here, without a single character OR THE READER being able to fight against it, or overcome it, that's where it goes off the rails for me. Especially when racism is mixed up in it.

My friend jo once said, about a very different book (with characters in extremely dire straits of a different sort) that "it allows you to contain it [their pain] you feel you are making a difference you are there reading the book and the kids are not alone because you are there and you are getting it and as long as you are there loving the kids they will be okay."

But these characters are so alone, and they will always be alone, and they don't even have each other. And I - the reader - am kept as much at a distance as each of them are from each other, or from the ability to act on their own behalf to change their situation.

And that is it. That is why the unremitting, unrelenting, unresolvable pain in this book is so great it overwhelmed my ability to look at it or read it or accept the book as of the quality that it is, because McCullers - AT THE FREAKIN' AGE OF 23!!! - was able to show this.

You're right, it's a five-star book. It just is.

message 5: by jo (new) - rated it 5 stars

jo thank you for the shout out, jen. unfortunately i can't read the review because i want to read the book (soon, but i have to be in the right mood! oh no! human limitations!) but i'm sure it's wonderful.

Trevor This is a real favourite. Disturbingly good. Great review, by the way.

Travelin I had a similar problem with Angela's Ashes, Butcher Boy, etc.

Jennifer (aka EM) Thank you, Trevor! Rereading my review, it still has a disconnect between what I feel about this book, what I say I feel, and how I'm rating it. This is one of those books that I recognize as an amazing work of art, but that I circle and circle and try to get a grasp on it - try to feel it the way others do, but keep coming up short.

I think it's the lack of hope that ultimately defeats me. Complete and utter hopelessness and despair.

I wonder if this is the saddest book I've ever read? I think it might be.

Maybe House of Mirth and The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne are on that list too.

@Travelin - I think I read Angela's Ashes ages and ages ago, but it is almost a parody in its sadness. Or something - it's different to this (for me) in some way.

message 9: by Julie (new)

Julie "AT THE FREAKING AGE OF 23"... :) My thoughts exactly. Reading your review was a good way to revisit this book, remember why it has stayed with me, and remind myself that I may not want to re-read it.

Jennifer (aka EM) Julie, did you ever read The Sheltering Sky? In tone and even, to some extent, style (although very different setting/themes), the two are really closely aligned (maybe just in my own head).

Yeah, there are books I absolutely love(d) that I will never, ever read again. The White Bone; House of Mirth; Beloved.

message 11: by Julie (new)

Julie I haven't read that one. I'll look into it. :)

Samadrita Hurrah for the 5 stars!

Cecily When I first read this (late teens) I'd never heard of Southern Gothic, and just took it as a tale of a sad but exotically different world (I live in England). I've read it (and other McCullers) several times since, but I'm not sure I've ever analyzed it to the depth you have in this review.

message 15: by Jennifer (aka EM) (last edited Jan 06, 2015 06:21AM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Jennifer (aka EM) Yeah, as a Canadian, there is definitely something exotic about Southern Gothic. I don't seem to take to it naturally. But The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter is also much more than that 'genre box', I think.

I struggled with it - it caused a whole range of conflicting emotions that held on for a while. And when I struggle, I tend to write it out so that I can get a handle on it. I suspect that a lot of us on goodreads do this!

I want to re-read it, which is not something I generally say for books about which I'm this conflicted, and also that I found so woefully bleak.

Eunice Your review is one of the funniest reviews I've read. 5 stars :)

Eunice Your review is one of the funniest reviews I've read. 5 stars :)

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