A Good Hard Look, Ann Napolitano

A Good Hard Look

Ann Napolitano

Penguin Press, $25.95, 336 pages

Especially here in Georgia, where she is practically a saint, the idea of a novel in which Flannery O’Connor plays a fictional role might seem a little sacrilegious. It’s hard to imagine how the brilliant Catholic author, whose novels and short fiction gave birth to the term “Southern Gothic,” who put Milledgeville on the map, could be resurrected on the page. You can almost see her perched on her crutches, her long flat eyes narrowed behind her cats-eye glasses, about to say how idiotic it would be.

After all, she was the one who said, speaking of herself, that “lives spent between the house and the chicken yard do not make exciting copy."

But Ann Napolitano’s debut novel, “A Good Hard Look,” with O’Connor occupying a central role, does the Georgia author proud. Be prepared to like this book. It’s complicated and peacock-haunted and strange.

The story opens in Milledgeville in 1959, bringing together the 34-year-old O’Connor, in the last five years of her life, with a small cast of diverse characters -- a pot-smoking seamstress, an angst-filled teenage boy, a beautiful newlywed who was once the town’s most popular girl and a transplanted New Yorker who just might be O’Connor’s soul mate -- all of whom converge, each about to discover that we can’t always get what we need unless we’re willing to pay the price.

Against a background of screaming, caterwauling peacocks (O'Connor's beloved, ever-expanding flock), and on the eve of a wedding, Napolitano draws us irresistibly into her characters’ lives:

Cookie Himmel, who begins married life with a black eye, sustained when the birds' racket woke her up and she fell out of bed, has nursed a keen, even unbalanced hatred for O’Connor since spotting an unflattering portrait of herself in “Wise Blood.”

Cookie’s fiance, independently wealthy Melvin Whiteson, gladly left his life up north to start anew, but now finds himself on his wedding day “aware of a substantial gap in his understanding, of the woman beside him, and of this place.”

Lona Waters, first seen behind the church smoking a joint, is supposed to shape up so as not to jeopardize her policeman husband’s chances of making chief. Soon, she’ll find someone who doesn’t care how stoned she is: her new 17-year-old assistant, Joe, a teenager who has begun to wonder if what his family doctor calls a “growth spurt” could actually kill a person.

Despite their flaws, these are decidedly ungothic characters; Napolitano is not interested in populating her book with freaks and misfits. She wisely leaves characters from O’Connor’s novels and short stories alone (though there is a hint of the mother from “Everything That Rises Must Converge” in neighborhood busybody, Miss Mary) and focuses instead on creating believable relationships. The scenes between O’Connor and her outspoken and devoted mother, Regina, wonderfully capture O’Connor’s biting wit, Regina’s no-nonsense repartee, and the grave but unspoken dependency between the two.

O’Connor died from lupus erythematosus in 1964. During the five years Napolitano fleshes out, it was more important than ever to O’Connor that she do exactly what she was meant to do -- write -- but also a time when she may have wondered if she’d made a terrible mistake, “centering her life on a string of words typed on a page.”

O’Connor envies the other characters’ freedom to “do whatever they want, whenever they want,” just like her willful peacocks, including fall in love and have children, begin a new life or escape the one they’re living. The book’s three divisions, “Good,” “Hard,” and “Look,” suggest that their choices, just like O’Connor’s, will be tagged with a painful cost. But at first, the freedom they find seems to offer exactly what they want.

For O’Connor, who’s found a kindred soul in Melvin during the weekly driving lessons he gives her, she begins to entertain the thought, “flashing down the road with a man sitting next to her, that she was someone else, living a normal, contented life.”

For Melvin, it’s the pleasurable shock of O’Connor’s candid conversation and stimulating company: “She was like varnish rubbing the paint off his facade.” Lona, since falling for Joe, has finally found a more authentic version of herself: “Only now did she feel like she belonged in her own body.”

Melvin tells O’Connor that these wonderful moments of perfection should be frozen, that they should “last forever.” But no matter how much she wants to believe him, Flannery, a little more practiced in the art of the good hard look, finally has to admit, “I don’t think that’s how it works.”

She’s right, and not long afterward, in the second section of the book, “Hard,” Napolitano reshuffles the deck, up-ending the happy-ever-after trope. With O’Connor in the picture, it’s a cinch that grace would come for the characters in “A Good Hard Look” whether they like it or not, but it still comes as a shock when tragedy forms the portal.

“Does one’s integrity ever lie in what he’s unable to do?” O’Connor once asked. At the heart of Napolitano’s brave book lies that question: the mysteries of freedom, its price, and the unmarked paths we take to get there.

Book event

7 p.m., Tues. July 12, free talk/signing, First Baptist Church of Decatur, 308 Clairmont Ave., Decatur, 404-373-1653 http://www.georgiacenterforthebook.org/