Thursday, July 9, 2009

Tim Gautreaux and Flannery O'Connor


The June 22 issue of The New Yorker had a story in it by Tim Gautreaux, a Louisiana writer. The story was called "Idols," and it was about a man named Julian who had inherited a big house in Mississippi. I thought this sounded vaguely familiar, especially the character's name. The fact that the story ends in a conflagration made me think of Flannery O'Connor, who loved to end her stories with a big fire, and also of Faulkner, who burns down houses and barns in his stories too. I imagined that Tim Gautreaux, a Southerner, took as his mentors both O'Connor and Faulkner, as many Southern writers do.

Later I found out that the connection between Gautreaux's story and O'Connor was more direct: the Julian character in "Idols" is in fact the Julian in "Everything That Rises Must Converge." The latter story was first published in 1961. Julian has just finished junior college, so he's about 20 years old. In "Idols," which appears to be set in the present, Julian is in his sixties, an aging typewriter repairman. This fact is poignant, because in "Everything That Rises," he is selling typewriters as a temporary job until he "gets on his feet," as his mother says. Apparently, he never got beyond that.

In "Everything That Rises," Julian is both attracted to his aristocratic heritage, in the form of the old house he saw once, and repelled by his mother's constant invoking of her aristocratic forebears. He and his mother have fallen on hard times, and they live in a run-down neighborhood in a city, perhaps Memphis. Furthermore, black people are "rising," and the buses are recently integrated. Julian's mother both resents and patronizes black people, and she gets her comeuppance in a big way at the end of the story.

In "Idols," black people are absent. Class antagonisms have taken the place of racial conflict. Julian is now patronizing a poor white man, whom he hopes to help by employing the man, Obie, to fix up the old mansion which he has finally inherited. But it turns out that Obie is the one in control, as he is far more skillful and competent than Julian. Obie has his own goal: to rid himself of the tattoos that cover his entire body, including one of a Byzantine image of Christ on his back. The alert reader will recognize this Obie as O.E. Parker, from O'Connor's story "Parker's Back." Obie's wife calls the tattoos "idols," and won't take him back until he has them removed by a doctor, a painful process. By the end of the story, Obie's "idols" are gone, although they were once the things that gave meaning to his life.

Guess what. By the end of the story, Julian's "idol" is gone too, at least most of it. The big house is flooded, and the outbuildings are burned. Julian is bankrupt and can't restore his house, its plaster fallen in the flooding, its electricity ancient, its heating system nonexistent.

At first this story seems like a little moral parable: don't attach too much importance to yourself and your possessions, because they are mere idols that separate you from the real God, or other people, or something. But it's not that simple: one of Obie's "idols" IS God, or an image of God, on his back. His wife hated it because, like the late Byzantine Christians (the iconoclasts), she thought that images of God were idolatrous: "He don't look....He's a spirit. No man shall see his face." Parker's getting rid of this image is a little piece of iconoclasm, analogous to the work of zealots in the early medieval period who insisted on erasing images of Christ from Byzantine churches and who smashed wooden icons.

Maybe the point is that Julian's house was a similar image of his "importance," as he puts it, just as it was for his mother. Julian despised his mother's snobbery, her constant allusions to her family's lost aristocratic past. She kept saying, "I know who I am." Who she is, she thinks, is a Godhigh, a descendant of a prosperous landowner and slave-owner. Despite Julian's rejection of this identity in his youth, he has thoroughly embraced it by his late sixties, as Gautreaux imagines him. He thinks he knows who he is--the owner of a beautifully restored antebellum mansion, and by extension an aristocrat himself--just as Obie thinks that he knows what God looks like. But the mansion, and the name Godhigh, are no more representations of what Julian really is than the image of God on Parker's back is a representation of the real God. Parker doesn't know what God looks like, and Julian doesn't really know who he is.

I wonder if Gautreaux embraces O'Connor's relentlessly Christian view of the world. Somehow I doubt it. He is good at Southern voices, as she was; he seems to like a semi-apocalyptic ending to his stories, as she did. But "Idols" is less of a parable than O'Connor's stories, which nevertheless always manage to just barely avoid being so much parables that they cease to be art. Still, she came a little too close for comfort sometimes.

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