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The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers

October 26, 2014

Many thanks to my dear friend Leslie, who repeatedly recommended this book until I finally gave in and read it. It affected me more than any book in years and is definitely on my top ten list (it sits at #17 on the Modern Library’s list of best novels).

Set in a small, economically struggling southern town at the run-up to World War II, it is the story of the interwoven lives of a handful of people searching for meaning, hope and, mostly, a genuine connection. A teenage girl clings to her childhood dream of becoming a world-famous music composer in the face of impending adulthood. A half-mad socialist agitator spreads his gospel of revolution. An idealistic black physician tirelessly gives of himself but boils underneath with frustration and resentment at the mistreatment of his people. The owner of an all-night diner keeps the restaurant open because he finds solace in the wee hours, as if it offers hope for something meaningful to walk into his life. And at the center of this cast of characters is John Singer, a deaf-mute who without effort becomes the most meaningful person in each of their lives.

Early in the book, Singer’s best friend, Spiros Antonapoulous, also a deaf-mute, is committed to an insane asylum in Chicago, leaving Singer alone and hurting. He becomes the person in whom the others confide. They find in Singer (at least they imagine they do) a wise, gentle friend. What Singer more realistically represents is a sounding board, a blank page upon which they can each project their own needs. He is the embodiment of the patient listener, and each of the characters visits Singer in his rented boarding house room where they bare their souls to him. As tensions rise in the town and in the lives of the characters, they find Singer’s presence more and more comforting and critical. He is the emotional linchpin of the novel, but it becomes clear, despite all their talk, how little they actually know him.

The central cast has been described as a group of outcasts and misfits. I didn’t find them to be outcasts more than anyone else. Which is perhaps the point—everyone is an outcast unless you can find the human connection these characters all long for.

What is most amazing is the quiet power of this novel. McCullers was 23 when she published this novel, which is astounding considering the maturity of the voice and the deep understanding of each character. The doctor, in particular, is impressive—for a 23-year-old woman to be able to inhabit the life of an aging black physician. The language is simple, understated and unsentimental. From the opening line, McCullers writes with the confidence of a master.

“In the town there were two mutes, and they were always together.”

In his excellent book review, Charles McNair compares the tone of The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter to Edward Hopper’s depictions of loneliness, particularly his most famous painting, “Nighthawks At The Diner.” Structurally, The Heart reminded me of Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio. But McCullers’ writing is simpler, her delicate touch remarkable. I found even small moments and simple phrases striking. McCullers describes a scene as dinner is being prepared: “The fire in the stove made the kitchen window a warm orange. There was the smell of smoke and supper.” So simple and nice.

And this insignificant moment: “Biff stood up and touched the arm of the chair to still its rocking.” Perhaps I was bestowing too much significance on small moments 285 pages into the novel, but that gesture struck me as a keenly observed detail somehow imbued with loneliness.

I took my time with this novel because I didn’t want it to end. Even now, I’m reluctant to put it on the shelf because I’d love to spend more time with it. It’s a slow burn, but by the climax of the story, I was surprised at how emotionally invested I was in the characters. Because of the writing style, it had snuck up on me.

It’s not a hopeful novel. There is no magic moment. In fact, there is probably less resolution at the end than in the beginning, which is both unconventional and unsettling (and surprising, for a novel that had such popular success when it was published in 1940). But in the end, it is about what the title suggests: the longing of the heart. The hunt for fulfillment. And I hope the characters, whom I love, do eventually find, perhaps in their lives beyond the pages of this book, whatever it is their hearts are searching for.

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