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CEDRIC GAEL BRYANT Colby College “Things Only a Miracle Can Set to Rights”: Reading Flannery O’Connor, Violence, and Ambiguity in William Gay’s “The Paperhanger”1 Nobody wants his mule and wagon stalled on the same track the Dixie Limited is roaring down. —Flannery O’Connor, “Some Aspects of the Grotesque in Southern Fiction” (818) I wouldn’t want to be caught saying that violence is good. . . . But violence, for all manner of reasons, finds some of us. I would maintain it doesn’t make us bad, it only makes us human. —Harry Crews, “The Violence That Finds Us” (190) IN WILLIAM GAY’S SHORT AND LONG FICTION, VIOLENCE IS AUTOPSIED TO reveal less its origin than its consequences to those who come in contact with it. A culture of violence pervades this fiction as a mundane fact of life, like drought, or rain, or any naturally occurring event. This same sobering truth also applies to the fiction of Tom Franklin and Cormac McCarthy, fellow Southern writers whom Gay highly esteemed. All three are the literary offspring of Flannery O’Connor and William Faulkner, and the family gene that courses through their fiction is the essay O’Connor called “Some Aspects of the Grotesque in Southern Fiction.” Boundbythecharacteristicallyviolentcouplingor intersection of contrary elements—like a banal family vacation that suddenly turns into an “ACCIDENT” and the consequential quasi-philosophical inquiry in which life and death hang in the balance—Gay takes the grotesque into a “lost country”2 wherein ambiguity and violence are among the few constants in an inconstant world. Whatever grace or redemption or 1 For William Gay (in memoriam), who, in the company of his good friend Sonny Brewer at the wheel, made a road trip all the way to Waterville, Maine, in late September, 2011. And for Adrian Blevins, who kept saying “You’ve got to write it!” 2 “The Lost Country” is the title of a final, unpublished novel by William Gay, who died on February 23, 2012. 304 Cedric Gael Bryant salvation is possible lies in human agency and the lessons learned, as Faulkner said, from “the problems of the human heart in conflict with itself” (723). William Giraldi, in his interview-based essay on Gay’s fiction, makes this cogent observation about “The Paperhanger”: The story breathes, enigmatically, as if just born. It offers almost no information about these characters: not where they come from, not their fevered dreams, not what they yearn for at first light. . . . In “The Paperhanger” we know only how the characters react in the midst of an unexpected mystery, and with that alone Gay enables us to know them for life. (332) There are no facile answers in Gay’s fiction generally, and specifically none in this enigmatic story about what Flannery O’Connor calls the grotesque.3 And it could be said with equal force of Gay’s fiction what O’Connor famously said of her own, paraphrasing W. B. Yeats: “I believe that there are many rough beasts now slouching toward Bethlehem to be born and that I have reported the progress of a few of them” (Habit 90). Much of the blueprint for this “reporting” lay in what began as a public lecture O’Connor gave in 1960 and was later printed as “Some Aspects of the Grotesque in Southern Fiction.”4 This essay has become one of the signal mid-twentieth century statements about a species of American realism deeply and distinctly rooted in what O’Connor called a “Christ-haunted” South. As a result of being “flooded with sorry fiction based on unearned liberties, or on the notion that fiction must represent the typical,” the reading public has less understanding and regard for “the deeper kinds of realism” that are “alive,” “eccentric” (814-15), and increasingly the locus of “good Southern writers” (818). In a line of 3 It is inherently risky to read “Some Aspects of the Grotesque in Southern Fiction” as bullet points, the danger lying in reductionism that compromises the alternately cautionary, ironic, and humorous range of O’Connor’s voice. Hers is the reluctant voice ofthefictionwritertreadingself-consciouslyonthedomainoftheliterarycritic-scholar, a precarious straddling of two very different worlds O’Connor tries...


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