Flannery: A Life of Flannery O’Connor
by Brad Gooch
(Little, Brown, 416 pages, $30)
Flannery O’Connor never imagined herself to be a great subject for future biographers. “There won’t be any biographies of me,” she once said, because “lives spent between the house and the chicken yard do not make exciting copy.” Born in 1925, Mary Flannery O’Connor died an acclaimed voice of American fiction just 39 years later. She had escaped the chicken yards of Georgia only briefly, when she won a seat at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and then hung around New York for a spell. A diagnosis of lupus soon forced her to return to the care of her mother. But she accepted her resulting isolation with typical humor. “When I was 12,” she later told a friend, “I made up my mind absolutely that I would not get any older.”
Brad Gooch’s “thorough and informative” new book will be welcomed by O’Connor’s many admirers, said James E. Person Jr. in The Washington Times. Only the second O’Connor biography to be published, it “dispels the notion” that this idiosyncratic only child of a middle-class Roman Catholic family was a committed recluse. A cartoonist in her youth, she arrived in Iowa already confident in the sharp, satirical voice that marks such short stories as A Good Man Is Hard to Find. Gooch’s portrait of her childhood falls short, though, said David L. Ulin in the Los Angeles Times. His account only comes alive once O’Connor is really writing. He’s “brilliant on the fiction,” able to locate each of her pieces within the context of their time and the arc of a career that marked O’Connor as “perhaps the greatest 20th-century American practitioner of the short story.”
What made O’Connor great also makes her a difficult subject for straightforward biography, said Wendy Lesser in Bookforum. Her fiction reflected “a vision of such intense and angry and scathingly grotesque wit” that any attempt to “rationalize” her talent seems to be “exactly the wrong approach.” Though Gooch is clearly passionate about the author’s work, he and his subject make a poor match. Gooch “reports everything with a straight face,” while O’Connor’s narrative voice, even today, remains “demonically witty.”
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