By now you may have heard of Honey Boo Boo, the seven-year-old "go-go juice"-swilling pageant contestant whose family has redefined television's lowest common denominator.
Their TLC gawk-fest, Here Comes Honey Boo Boo, has an almost anthropological feel about it, depicting as it does the peculiar customs of a distant tribe (They bob for pigs' feet! They make spaghetti sauce out of ketchup and butter! They play "Guess Whose Breath"!). English subtitles are a sly touch, magnifying the sense that Honey Boo Boo and family are aliens among us.
Honey Boo Boo lives a mere twenty miles from Flannery O'Connor's Milledgeville, Georgia--a fact that has not been lost on the Twitterverse. Indeed, the connection is almost irresistible. One blogger refers to Honey Boo Boo's family as "our new grotesques." Time magazine columnist James Poniewozic describes the show as being "like the long-lost collaboration of Flannery O'Connor, Mike Judge and Larry the Cable Guy."
It is unkind to dismiss the Boo Boo family--who seem good-hearted enough in spite of their uncouth habits--as freaks worthy of a Flannery O'Connor story. It's not exactly fair to Flannery O'Connor either.
Biographer Brad Gooch has pointed out that the phrase "like something out of Flannery O'Connor" has entered the vernacular as a kind of shorthand to describe "a funny, dark, askew moment." He might have added that the phrase is also used to describe a wide range of phenomena around the edges of American culture, from religious manias to violent crimes to white-trash dysfunction and reality-TV freakishness of every stripe.
"Like something out of Flannery O'Connor" is a wave of the hand and a winks that says, We already know what to think about this person, this situation, don't we? We already know what to think about Two-Seed-in-the-Spirit Predestinarian Baptists and trailer-park criminals and undereducated, overweight coupon-clipping hoarders who sign their little girls up for beauty pageants, just as we already know what to think about serial killers and backwater racists and ignorant Bible salesmen who stump from country town to country town.
Except that in O'Connor's fiction, it turns out that we don't know what to think about them after all. Her fanatics and freaks can never safely be ignored or dismissed, for they have the unsettling habit of telling the truth in spite of themselves. In "A Good Man Is Hard to Find," the Misfit understands things about Jesus that the grandmother never has. The freak-show hermaphrodite in "A Temple of the Holy Ghost" has a grasp on theological truths that have eluded the good Catholics in the story. Wise Blood's Hazel Motes may or may not be crazy in the head, but his heart pumps a "wise blood" that finally brings him back to the ultimate truth that he tries so strenuously to escape.
In common usage, "like something out of Flannery O'Connor" is a license not to take a person or situation very seriously. But O'Connor did take her grotesque characters seriously. "They seem to carry an invisible burden," she wrote; "their fanaticism is a reproach, not merely an eccentricity." When we gawk at and mock O'Connor's characters, it is easy to assume that O'Connor must be mocking them too. It is more likely, however, that O'Connor is mocking us. Consider the case of Old Tarwater the self-appointed prophet from The Violent Bear It Away. His nephew, the schoolteacher Rayber, is convinced that the old man is insane, and we are inclined to agree. "The modern reader will identify himself with the schoolteacher," O'Connor wrote, "but it is the old man who speaks for me."
In Flannery O'Connor's body of work, there are as many kinds of misfit and maimed soul as there are stories--the street preacher, the prostitute, the moonshiner, the serial killer, the hermaphrodite, the idiot, the bumpkin, the false prophet, the reluctant prophet, the refugee, the amputee, the con man, the monomaniac, the juvenile delinquent. Perhaps the phrase "like something out of Flannery O'Connor" is so widely applicable because there is such a wide range of characters in her fiction.
But there is one other character type that appears in O'Connor's short stories at least as often as the freak. Most of her stories involve a figure who is convinced that he or she already knows what to think, whose certainty and self-righteousness have been a shield against the looming reality of sin and judgment and redemption. Joy-Hulga, the one-legged philosopher in "Good Country People." Julian, the social progressive in "Everything that Rises Must Converge." Asbury, the invalid and failed artist in "The Enduring Chill." Throughout O'Connor's body of work, the complacent and self-reliant are confronted with a choice: to clutch at their own righteousness like a drowning man clutching at a cinder block, or to let it go, admit that they have been fools, and so enter into life.
In "Revelation," the smug, bourgeois Ruby Turpin finds herself in a doctor's waiting room with a family who appear to be the forebears of Honey Boo Boo and family. The young mother, "vacant and white-trashy," sits in her bedroom slippers beside the snuff-dipping grandmother, who spouts off virulently racist remarks (in distinct contrast to Mrs. Turpin's milder but no less insidious racism). In a detail prescient of Honey Boo Boo's go-go juice and Pixie Stix, the mother remarks that her grubby children subsist on "Co' Cola and candy." Mrs. Turpin knows exactly what to think of them.
There was nothing you could tell her about people like them that she didn't know already. And it was not just that they didn't have anything. Because if you gave them everything, in two weeks they would have chopped it up for lightwood. She knew all this from her own experience. Help them you must, but help them you couldn't.
But when judgment thunders down on that waiting room, it is not the proto-Boo Boos who get it, but the respectable Mrs. Turpin. To her astonishment, she is denounced and assaulted by a prophet in the form of a purple-faced Wellesley student.
Later, after she has survived the attack, Mrs. Turpin asks God, "What do you send me a message like that for?... Why me? There was plenty of trash there. It didn't have to be me."
Mrs. Turpin gets her answer in the form of a vision that shows how wrong she had been about the Kingdom of Heaven and her place in it vis a vis the white trash and African Americans who have been the bane of her existence. A purple streak of cloud in the gloaming became a bridge, and upon it a vast horde of souls was rumbling toward heaven. There were whole companies of white-trash, clean for the first time in their lives, and bands of black n-----s in white robes, and battalions of freaks and lunatics shouting and clapping and leaping like frogs.
Mrs. Turpin and her respectable husband have a place in the procession too, but it's all the way in the back, behind all the people she had disparaged and judged so blithely.
So then, are Honey Boo Boo and her family like something out of Flannery O'Connor? Perhaps they are. But so are those of us who gawk at them from the safety of our judgment seats. The central figure in O'Connor's fiction, as it turns out, is neither the freak nor the fanatic nor the felon, but the Pharisee. If we cannot see ourselves in the lunatics and deviants, surely we can see ourselves in the upright and the self-assured who turn out to be so wrong about themselves and the people around them. We have all been, at one time or another, like something out of Flannery O'Connor.
Jonathan Rogers is the author of The Terrible Speed of Mercy: A Spiritual Biography of Flannery O'Connor [Thomas Nelson, $15.99].
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