Monday, March 31, 2014

BOOK REVIEW: The Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers

Spring break has started and I’m off work, so I finally buckled down and read something. I’m way behind on the Back-to-the-Classics Challenge (hosted by Books and Chocolate). I hadn’t even started. That meant the first book on my spring break list was The Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers. Since this book has been on my shelf for more than ten years, it’s also a TBR-pile challenge book (hosted by Bookish). It is an amazing novel for a 23-year-old author to have produced. But what a depressing book.

The title is a hint. This is a book about lonely, alienated people. The main characters are Mister Singer, who is deaf and mute, and Mick Kelly, a teenage girl from a poor family who has big dreams but a tiny box of a reality. There is also an alcoholic itinerant worker who wants to be a labor organizer but no one will listen to him; that and his drinking have driven him sort of crazy, or it could be he is unbalanced to begin with. There is a restaurant/bar owner, whose relationship with his wife is pretty poor and then she dies. And there is a black doctor who is dying of tuberculosis. He has suffered all his life from watching his people suffer and wanting to help them, wanting them to help themselves, and watching them being beaten down by whites in the poor southern mill town they live in. He was merciless to his own children because his expectations for them were so high, and what they achieved was pretty much what was available to them, and he blamed them. His daughter, who is religious, seems the best-adjusted person in the book, but even she gets served up heartbreak after heartbreak.

Mister Singer had one good friend, another deaf mute, who went crazy and had to be sent to an asylum early in the story. After that, Mister Singer lives for the few days a year he can go to visit his friend. But the other characters in the story see Mr. Singer as some sort of empathetic sounding board. Because he can’t speak, they talk to him and pour out their troubles. He’s a very good listener. All these lonely people need that more than anything. But they all think he is something he is not.

Mick is a troubled girl who loves music and who wants to travel, to see the world. She wants to do something with her life. She has to care for her younger siblings, but she can compartmentalize those chores with the part of her life that is her own. Eventually, though, she has to help bring in money, which is pretty much the last gasp of her fading childhood. She is trapped and loses even the illusions of youth, even her hope.

The writing in the story is extraordinary. It’s impressive but sad that someone so young can represent such a wide range of depressing and hopeless situations. Some of the characters speeches did run on and on, but even that reflects how lonely alcoholic and mentally unstable people will run on. So while it makes for dull and repetitive reading at times, it’s realistic.

If you’re in the mood for fine writing, thoughtful character sketching, and depressing insight, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter is worth reading. I’m just not sure it’s the best book to kick off a vacation.

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