Since Flannery O'Connor could surprise readers who expect a focus on the work and influence of Flannery O'Connor. That subject is literally at the edges of its concerns. This collection of fourteen essays contains four essays on O'Connor, two each bookending the volume. The first two treat O'Connor's "Geranium" and its reworking into "Judgement Day"; the last two discuss O'Connor's influence on the work of Bobbie Ann Mason and Raymond Carver, respectively. In between are essays on the work of a variety of contemporary writers, from Welty and Cheever to Doctorow and Ozick (twice), but nothing on, say, Phillips or Wolff. Presumably some principle guides the selection of writers included, but the only clear foundation is that of all of the writers spotlighted, O'Connor died first. Maybe that is enough.
More surprising is the uneven quality of the essays. Several in this potluck offering are informative, fresh, and engagingly written—let me recommend the pieces on Donald Barthelme by Clarke Owens or the one on postmodern fiction by Lance Olsen—but several others seem to have escaped editorial review. The essay showing the development of the grotesque from O'Connor to Mason is at least one revision from publishable quality. The author does not define "grotesque" and applies the term uncritically to situations in Mason's fiction that are more easily read as conventional realism. Additionally, she attributes a "vigorous espousal of Christianity" to the grandmother in "A Good Man Is Hard to Find," an astonishing judgment. The author even claims that a critic who has predicted the survival of the grotesque "as long as the South continues to evolve" now "proves his assertion with the publication" of a "collection of essays." Such lapses of judgment and logic should have been remedied, or what is an editor for? Barbara [End Page 247] Lonnquist, on the other hand, writes a compelling essay on the "powerful presence" of O'Connor in the fiction of Raymond Carver. In Carver's as in O'Connor's fiction, Lonnquist argues, meaning is disclosed in moments of epiphany, the dramatization of the "smallest gesture" that produces a "sense of simultaneous recognition and discovery." Here is not the anxiety but the efficacy of influence, Carver's secular accomplishment deepening in the light of his religious precursor even as his work adjusts our understanding of O'Connor. T. S. Eliot would approve. The two essays treating the maturing of "Geranium" into "Judgement Day" are professional and competent pieces.
In a less obvious way, John Desmond's Risen Sons relegates O'Connor to the edges of its interest. The stated purpose of the study is to show that "O'Connor's historical sense and her artistic sense [are] inseparable within the creative act." For Desmond, her historical sense derives from "the Incarnation of Christ . . . the event in history which her fiction attempts to imitate." Her artistic technique is to effect this imitation through analogy: "an analogical view of reality is at the core of [her] vision and practice." After a labored chapter building the conceptual framework for his study, Desmond discusses the relation of framework to fiction. He writes an effective chapter on her early neglected work (those stories not included in her two collections), discusses the shortcomings of Wise Blood, and gives several of O'Connor's classic pieces a slightly different look. Mrs. Turpin's vision at the end of "Revelation," for example, displaces her from a private and privileged history to one within a "mystical community." Desmond argues further that O'Connor's career discloses a development of her historical vision through her mastery of analogy as a technique. "Geranium," for example, is inferior to "Judgement Day" because the former fails where the latter succeeds in dramatizing "a unification of historical vision and analogical technique."
O'Connor's fiction, however, is only illustrative of...