Smashing 'Southern'

Mention Southern fiction and many readers are sure they know what to expect -- voluble women, taciturn men, some landscape, some rural life. For good or ill, a lot of Southern fiction has a recognizable face.

And then there is the fiction of Flannery O'Connor. The prickly, intellectual Georgian who single-handedly hauled the notion of "the grotesque" into critical conversations created a body of fiction that is undeniably Southern and yet surpassingly strange. Her work is full of landscapes, yes, but those landscapes seem apocalyptic, with the sun's bloody rays like accusatory fingers. And the settings are often rural, yes, but O'Connor's version of pastoral life is perilous, as when Mrs. May in "Greenleaf" dies after being gored by her own bull, who buries his head in her lap "like a wild, tormented lover." The world of this fiction is recognizable but distorted, and it is only too easy to imagine the lunch at which the author's mother pleaded with her daughter's editor, Robert Giroux, to make Flannery write about "nice people."

The anecdote, like many from Brad Gooch's superb new biography, "Flannery: A Life of Flannery O'Connor," is funny and telling. Gooch, whose previous books include a biography of the poet Frank O'Hara, writes with restraint, respect and a deep understanding of his subject. He offers a close examination of O'Connor's life that analyzes the mordant, passionately Christian writer's influences, hopes and dreams -- particularly her failed dreams, which she used to stoke the fires of her art.

Her life's outline appears simple. After completing her master's degree in fine arts in fiction writing at the University of Iowa when she was 22, O'Connor planned to live in New York and make a living as a novelist. She had a number of friends who encouraged and supported her, and she was already publishing her stories in some of the best journals in the nation; the plan seemed reasonable. But in 1950, at 25, she became ill and had to return to her mother in Georgia, where doctors diagnosed lupus erythematosis, the autoimmune disease that had killed O'Connor's father in 1941.

Turning away from her expectations for a literary life among literary people, she moved back to Andalusia, the family farm in Milledgeville, Ga., that has become a kind of shrine for O'Connor's fans. There, having only occasional direct contact with other writers, visiting no bookstores, living an increasingly circumscribed life in which a day's excitement likely was feeding her beloved peahens and peacocks, she wrote astonishing, singular fiction that has effortlessly held its own for more than 50 years.

Gooch examines the ways O'Connor took the material of her life -- what she had witnessed or heard about, and what she had experienced in her rich Georgia childhood -- and turned it into funny, vivid, often terrifying fiction. With a wryness that O'Connor would have appreciated, he notes the number of domineering mothers in her stories -- domineering mothers often sentenced to live with thankless, smart-mouthed, college-educated offspring who sound an awful lot like O'Connor. With enormous grace, he traces the romantic disappointments in her life, a subject of enduring interest to O'Connor scholars and reveals the shadows of these disappointments in her fiction.

Above all, Gooch illuminates the role of O'Connor's profound Catholic faith in her life and writing. Tracing the longstanding religious observance of her family (O'Connor's cousin funded a wing of Savannah's Catholic St. Joseph's Hospital) that found a ready appetite in the young, headstrong girl, he demonstrates how her deep faith co-existed with her famously fierce temper. The musicologist Edward Maisel wrote that he found O'Connor "immensely serious, with a sharp sense of humor; a very devout Catholic (thirteenth century, she describes herself)."

Working with a light touch, Gooch not only documents the depth of O'Connor's theological interest -- she had a particular devotion to the great medieval Scholastic Thomas Aquinas -- but also its effect on her thinking and writing. Her interest in theology eventually carried her to the complex, far-reaching books of Jesuit Teilhard de Chardin, whose work provided the title for her posthumous and best-known collection of stories, "Everything That Rises Must Converge."

Published in 1965, that book contained O'Connor's only fiction about the civil-rights movement, although Gooch notes the increasingly frequent comments about the movement in her letters, particularly as she wrestled with the story "Revelation," about a white woman's reluctant comprehension of racial equality. The story indicts much of the white Southern status quo, and Gooch quotes O'Connor's friend Louise Abbott saying, "I felt 'Revelation' marked a turning point in Flannery's thinking, feeling, writing, everything. And that she had started in another direction."

But O'Connor died in 1964 at age 39 having written four books of a strangeness and ferocity that have not been matched.

This first book-length biography of O'Connor arrives after a significant wait. It was long thought that Sally Fitzgerald, who edited O'Connor's collected letters, would write a biography, but Fitzgerald died in 2000 without completing the work. For O'Connor scholars, Gooch's book will be a welcome window into the writer's life. For her fans, it will help provide fresh appreciation for O'Connor's well-known body of work. And for those new to her, Flannery is a striking, beautifully written portrait of a magnificent writer and complicated, conflicted woman who kept one foot in the 20th century and the other, firmly, in the 13th.

Erin McGraw's last book is a novel, "The Seamstress of Hollywood Boulevard."