Wise Blood by Flannery O’Connor, published in 1952.
Anyone familiar with the works of Flannery O’Connor can appreciate it when I say that this is a peculiar book. In other words, it’s my kind of read.
Haze Motes is a man on mission. Like his father and his father’s father before him, it was always his intention to be a preacher and spread the good news of redemption in Jesus Christ. Somewhere along the way, during his service in the second World War, he became an raging atheist.
He was not just your average, run of the mill unbeliever however. Because he wrongly assumed just about every person he met in the Bible belt from which he hailed was a believer, he assaulted them with his anti-Jesus message in bizarre and inappropriate ways. Adding insult to injury, everyone who meets him takes in his attire and demeanor, and automatically assumes he’s a preacher. So when he hails a taxi and gives the driver the address of a local whore as his drop off point, it’s the first of many times he has to convince someone that he is not in fact, a preacher:
Outside he got in a yellow taxi and told the driver where he wanted to go.
“You ain’t no friend of hers, are you?” the driver asked.
“I never saw her before,” Haze said.
“Where’d you hear about her? She don’t usually have no preachers for company.” He did not disturb the position of the cigar when he spoke; he was able to speak on either side of it.
“I ain’t any preacher,” Haze said, frowning. “I only seen her name in the toilet.”
“You look like a preacher,” the driver said. “That hat looks like a preacher’s hat.”
“It ain’t,” Haze said, and leaned forward and gripped the back of the front seat. “It’s just a hat.”
They stopped in front of a small one-story house between a filling station and a vacant lot. Haze got out and paid his fare through the window.
“it ain’t only the hat,” the driver said. “It’s a look in your face somewheres.”
“Listen,” Haze said, tilting the hat over one eye, “I’m not a preacher.”
Eventually he runs into a street evangelist and decides to embrace his own destiny. He begins a competing street ministry which he names ‘The Church Without Christ”. Of course, he’s surly and has a religious chip on his shoulder the size of the Smoky Mountains, so it gains no traction.
The only person who pays him any mind at all is a lonely, slightly unhinged and voyeuristic 18-year-old misfit who believes that when you have “wise blood” it’s all the guidance you need and the degenerate 16-year-old daughter of the street preacher he encountered when he first enters town.
What’s worse is that another, more charismatic man “with a winning smile” sees Haze on the street and decides to help him make his message more palatable. He knows they can actually make some money if they are careful not to abandon Christ altogether, and he tries to change Haze’s “ministry name to the Holy Church of Christ Without Christ:
“now friends”, Onnie Jay said, “I want to tell you a second reason why you can absolutely trust this church- it’s based on the Bible. Yes sir! It’s based on your own personal interpitation of the Bible, friends. You can sit at home and interpit your own Bible however you feel in your heart it ought to be interpited. That’s right,” he said, “just the way Jesus would have done it. Gee, I wisht I had my gittar here,” he complained.
But Haze is principled, far more concerned with teaching the “truth” that there is no Jesus, and there’s no need for one. There was never a Fall, hence no need for Redemption, and certainly no need for Justification. He rejects Onnie Jay’s scheme, and much to Haze’s disgust, Onnie Jay accumulates his own “church” members willing to pay him a dollar to be a member.
In the end, like every character in the book, Haze goes even further off the deep end until he meets his end. There are lots of surprises in this book even, taking into account the spoilers I’ve offered describing the plot. Well if you’re used to Flannery O’Connor, they may not be surprising at all.
O’Connor had a taste for not only the morbid, but also for digging into the darkest recesses of the minds of her characters, revealing those things that make it quite easy for you to read the entire work without developing a fondness for any one of them.
It’s quite disconcerting, and uncomfortably real. How many people would any of us truly be able to tolerate if we could really see into them, what makes them tick? How many people would be able to tolerate us? That O’Connor doesn’t bother to offer up a hero, or even an anti-hero, is what makes her unique among women writers even in a time and place when people were more acquainted with the realities of life.