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Volume 18, Issue 2: Pat-Pat

Best of O'Connor

Douglas Jones

O'Connor published two collections of short stories and wrote two novellas. All of this, as well as key prose pieces and some correspondence, have been gathered in her one-volume collected works from the Library of America. You really need to read all her short stories, but I'm an American so I need a "best of" list. Here's my shot. Key to my choice was whether the story hung together aesthetically with tension, humor, symbolism, and characterization. Some of her other famous stories had strong points in one area (e.g., the opening of "Revelation"), but those in the list below seem to be firing on all cylinders.

10. "The Enduring Chill"—Faux artiste and momma's boy Asbury Fox returns home to the country with a strange illness. His sister doesn't give him a break, and the scene with the Jesuit he calls is quite fun. This might be one of O'Connor's most delightful satires of modern arrogance.
9. "Good Country People"—Similar in theme to number 10, but this more famous story gives us a richer characterization of the modern Hulga, a philosophy Ph.D with a wooden leg, who seeks to seduce a good devil.
8. "The Lame Shall Enter First"—Though the ending could use just a smidge more setup or fade, the interactions between the progressive, Sheppard, and the boy he wants to save, club-footed Rufus, make for some of O'Connor's best drama, as Sheppard neglects his own son. The opening scenes with Sheppard's son show great parental manipulation.
7. "An Afternoon in the Woods"—This is a rewrite of O'Connor's early story "The Turkey." Read both and see how she improves the earlier story with more detailed psychology. Young Mason hunts a turkey and passes through various facets of self-righteousness as he imagines his hunting glory. Dark grace waits. The cross even shows up mysteriously in this story.
6. "Judgment Day"—One of the two stories O'Connor finished shortly before her death. In some ways, it shows her most mature style, though it lacks the biblical symbolism of the other stories. Very smooth and highly believable. Perhaps the most ambiguous of her stories. It's a clash between country and city, and old Tanner longs to get back to the perceived simplicity of the Old South, but he's got to pass through new racial realities.
5. "A Good Man Is Hard to Find"—One of Flannery's personal favorites. She would often use this classic when invited to give a reading. It's the title story of her first collection, and though relatively early, it still hangs together very well with no waste. It rests on themes of covenant succession, as we see nice grandmother's effects on her child and grandchildren coming back to haunt her. In some ways, still the most perfect and typical Flannery story, rich with biblical allusion.
4. "Everything That Rises Must Converge"—Perhaps the most anthologized O'Connor story, as it takes thematic shots at conservatives and liberals on race, but it's much more fascinating as a character study of Julian and his mom, each trying to manipulate the other for the greater good. Not an extra sentence in it.
3. "Greenleaf"—In the family of "A Good Man Is Hard to Find," but actually even richer in theme and surprising biblical symbolism. John Updike picked this story for the Best American Short Stories of the Century. Great echoing and twinning between characters. Great self-deception in the protagonist and well-balanced drama toward another notorious climax. Watch that bull.
2. "The Barber"—An early Flannery story that retells the story of Moses and Pharaoh in a tense Southern barber shop. Wonderful biblical typologies at work. Great satire of moderns, again. Powerful characterizations and humor all round. Fits together amazingly well. The main setting itself helps it stand apart from other stories.
1. "Parker's Back"—O'Connor finished this one shortly before her death, and her letters show she had confidence in it. It's full of surprises, humor, and one of the few with romance, however odd. It's a twisted marriage of backwoods gnostic and newbie orthodox, who unconsciously struggle over the power of naming and baptism through a key tattoo. Every part seems to hang in near perfect balance. Great dialogue throughout. My vote as O'Connor's masterpiece.

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