Leave Me Alone: The Heart is a Lonely Hunter

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Well, Ms. McCullers, the heart may very well be a lonely hunter, but if you drag out a listless melodrama with little action, sparse characterization, and suffocate it with too many conflicting philosophical, theological, and political ideologies, the heart begins to beg for that very loneliness.

Mine pleaded to be left alone nearly every time I picked up Carson McCullers’ Southern American novel, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, originally published in 1940. But the TBR jar giveth a title to be read and the TBR jar taketh away. . . but only if I finish the book; those are the rules. And it’s not usually in my nature to abandon a text, but I came close several times with this book.

The Heart is a Lonely Hunter takes place in a sleepy little Georgia mill town and centers primarily around a deaf-mute named John Singer. Singer attracts several other inhabitants of this town who find comfort in his listening and understanding skills; Mick Kelly, a tomboy who desperately wants to study music and is based on McCullers herself, Dr. Benedict Mady Copeland, an angry, revolutionist African American doctor, Biff Brannon, the quiet owner of a local bar whose wife passes away, and Jake Blount, a misshapen alcoholic with Socialist beliefs. Together, these characters tiptoe around each other while still interacting, none truly able to communicate with the others.

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The Heart is a Lonely Hunter is often considered a member of the Southern Gothic canon within American literature, and it can be sort of disturbing to me for several reasons that this novel, often considered McCullers’ masterpiece, is placed alongside the work of Faulkner and Capote and many others in the realm of the Southern Gothic.

It is probably unfair for Ms. McCullers that I just finished reading Nabokov before picking up this novel, and as far as the aesthetic and the auditory elements to language construction, Nabokov is beyond masterful. To me, he is pure royalty. So I do admit Carson was set up from the beginning, but I remain shocked that such a basic style impresses anyone.

Her style is so plain and clumsy, as if she stumbles over her own tongue, and I found myself having to reread sentences to catch her meaning. The writing is poor; stunted by staccato sentences and the constant repetition of certain vocabulary as if she lacked a thesaurus. She seems to have hit aim with the Southern dialect and slang of the era found within her dialogue, but what she lacks in eloquence she completely abandons in plot development.

I’m not sure I can even admit that anything actually happens in this novel; things happen, I suppose, but there’s no solid plot, making it incredibly easy to abandon by the reader. There’s nothing inherently wrong with a coming-of-age story IF that story is built sufficiently to keep readers invested.

I’m always wary of the “Oprah Bookclub” sticker on the front cover because, although she picks decent books that address issues of racism or social justice (which this book only highlights but does not further any meaningful commentary), the ones Oprah picks are, more often than not, boring as hell.

I don’t think McCullers has failed in her focus on the dark issues that have historically haunted the south- both ideological and institutional racism and poverty are the two she focuses on heavily in this novel. But she seems to have fallen down the rabbit hole of social justice issues, throwing Judeo-Christian ethics and theology and Communist/Socialist ideology into the mix.

One might argue that this is actually how we live our lives these days, constantly surrounded by societal issues that plague us on the reg. And I agree with this; what I don’t agree with is sprinkling in a touch of this issue and a touch of that issues into a text for, what seems to me like, showboating.

We see this with the casual name dropping McCullers’ narrator likes to use. Spinoza, Marx, and Engels are mentioned several times throughout the novel, as if to support her argument. . . whatever that primary argument is, but even then, it is hardly convincing when placed within the sloppiness of McCullers’ writing style.

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McCullers breaks one simple rule within story construction: if you want to win people over to read and contemplate your argument, whatever that argument may be, you have to create a tale that makes them want to stay.

Further driving me away is my lack of bonding with the host of characters. I have zero attachment to any of these characters, all of whom seemed like caricatures of humans instead of full, robust characters that readers feel a bond with. The mute. The tomboy. The alcoholic. The angry doctor. The only character I even slightly took to was the African American doctor Dr. Benedict Mady Copeland, but it might just be because he has a badass name.

I finished the book, yes, but it was pretty painful towards the end, almost as if the novel clung to my ankle and made a high pitched falcon speech, begging me to finish it. So while I can appreciate that this text probably had an important role back in the time of its creation addressing issues of racism and poverty, its so dreadfully dull that it became a burden to finish.

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