cover image Flannery O’Connor’s ‘Why Do the Heathen Rage?’: A Behind-the-Scenes Look at a Work in Progress

Flannery O’Connor’s ‘Why Do the Heathen Rage?’: A Behind-the-Scenes Look at a Work in Progress

Jessica Hooten Wilson. Brazos, $24.99 (192p) ISBN 978-1-58743-618-5

In this worthwhile if flawed study, Wilson (Reading for the Love of God), Fletcher Jones Chair of Great Books at Pepperdine University, contextualizes Flannery O’Connor’s little-known third novel, which was left unfinished at the time of her 1964 death. Captured in only a “handful of odd scenes” and scattered notes, the work’s themes will nonetheless ring familiar to anyone who’s read O’Connor’s stories or novels: as the patriarch of a failing white Southern family slowly dies, cared for by the family’s Black employee, his disillusioned son takes up writing letters to Oona Gibbs, a civil rights activist “driven by her spiritual inclinations”; the plot crests when Oona shows up unexpectedly on the farm. In dissecting each fragment, Wilson draws revealing links to O’Connor’s life, speculating, for instance, about whether Gibbs was inspired by the author’s friend, playwright Maryat Lee. The focus is on O’Connor’s complicated relationship with Catholicism and race. According to Wilson, O’Connor grappled with “issues of social justice and fairness” as she wrote the novel, yet still saw the civil rights movement as “an earthly and political issue” that “invited little investigation into its heavenly importance,” a tension that may have informed her inability to complete the work. Odd diversions sometimes distract, as when Wilson invokes New York Times columnist Ross Douthat to suggest that contemporary readers don’t understand divine grace as O’Connor did, because “many assume they are divine, gods unto themselves,” taking a slap at Eat, Pray, Love author Elizabeth Gilbert along the way. Still, Wilson does a great service in resurrecting one of O’Connor’s lesser-known works. Religious fans of the Southern literary giant will be especially fascinated. (Jan.)