The group called Speaking of Stories — which puts good actors on a stage, reading stories by well-known authors to an audience — will give its next performances at 2 p.m. Sunday and 7:30 p.m. Monday in the Center Stage Theater at Paseo Nuevo.
The theme of these readings is “Southern Flavors,” with stories that explore “the unique styles and sensibilities that help define the South.” Thus, Christina Allison will read “It Had Wings” by Allan Gurganus; Tom Hinshaw, “Saving Fats” by Sam Shepard; Susan Keller, “The Young Man” by Ellen Gilchrist; Robert Lesser, “A Late Encounter With The Enemy” by Flannery O’Connor; and Meredith McMinn, “Chablis” by Donald Barthelme.
Probably because of my advanced age, this strikes me as an odd list of Southern writers. I hasten to add that they are all very good writers, and they are all — except Shepard — undeniably “Southern” in their origins and upbringing. (Shepherd was born in Illinois, and his career was spent mainly in New York, San Francisco and Hollywood.) But the only name on the list that I would expect to find there is O’Connor. (Others who would certainly be on the list 20 years ago are William Faulkner, Thomas Wolfe, Eudora Welty, Katherine Anne Porter, Walker Percy, Calder Willingham, Reynolds Price and Robert Penn Warren, to name a few of the obvious choices.) Having read many of his stories in The New Yorker in my youth, I would never have suspected that Barthelme was from the South. The only thing I have read by Gilchrist is a novel set in the ancient world called “Anabasis,” although, reading about her with the help of the Internet, I find she is clearly and unequivocally Southern.
In O’Connor’s 39 years — she inherited disseminated lupus from her father, and died of it in 1964 — she published just four books of fiction: two novels, Wise Blood and The Violent Bear It Away; and two collections of short stories, A Good Man is Hard to Find (whence A Late Encounter with the Enemy) and Everything That Rises Must Converge (published in 1965, after her death). She was a Roman Catholic, with a rather puritanical spin on the faith. She was, I think, a peculiar kind of saint. Despite the excessive amount of pain in her life, she was cheerful and witty. (Her description of her young self: “a pigeon-toed child with a receding chin and a you-leave-me-alone-or-I’ll-bite-you complex.”) Her stories are classed as Gothic, and you think you have never encountered such a collection of grotesques or followed such a horrifying narrative, until you find yourself laughing out loud.
“Anything that comes out of the South is going to be called grotesque by the Northern reader,” O’Connor wrote, “unless it is grotesque, in which case it is going to be called realistic.” And about the uncomprehending reviews of her work: “I am tired of reading reviews that call A Good Man brutal and sarcastic. The stories are hard but they are hard because there is nothing harder or less sentimental than Christian realism … when I see these stories described as horror stories I am always amused because the reviewer always has hold of the wrong horror.”
O’Connor was Southern to the core, but she was also a complete original, unclassifiable. If you haven’t read her, or seen John Huston’s miraculously faithful film of Wise Blood, you are in for a delightful shock.
Tickets to “Southern Flavors” are $25 general admission or $10 for students, and are available at the Center Stage box office, by phone at 805.963.0408 or 805.966.3875. Click here to order online from Center Stage Theater or click here to order online from Speaking of Stories.
— Gerald Carpenter covers the arts as a Noozhawk contributor. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.