Thursday, April 3, 2014

The Classics Project: The Heart is a Lonely Hunter

The Heart is a Lonely Hunter is the debut novel of Carson McCullers. It centers around a deaf/mute man named Singer and the people that he attracts to him.

Before I get into my review too much, I do want to say I think this book is worth a read. It's very different from anything I've read before and I think it will take me a while to decided if I "liked" it. But it did make me think. There are also several spoilers, but I've tried to leave out the major turning points. So read ahead at your own discretion.

The main characters are Singer, his deaf/mute friend Antonapoulos, the tomboyish and musically inclined young girl Mick Kelly, the educated and idealistic black physician Dr. Copeland, the alcoholic would-be labor organizer Jake Blount, and the observant Biff Brannon who owns a local all-night diner.

McCullers weaves these characters around each other in a vast tapestry of a late 1930s Southern town. There's nothing particularly special about Singer (except for maybe his vast patience), but he pulls the lonely and downtrodden to him with a gravitational-like force. Each of the side characters are attracted to Singer because he is a deaf/mute who is willing to let them talk. They come to him individually and talk endlessly about themselves and their own lives, imagining that Singer is the one person who really understands them. Because of his silence, he becomes a reflection of them.

I almost pitied Singer his unfounded confidant status except that he does the exact same thing with his deaf/mute friend. Singer who uses sign language talks endlessly to Antonapoulos who doesn't. Singer is absolutely certain that his friend understands him without any evidence of it.

I thought the book would go on to some kind of commentary about how relationships that are based on false pretenses (seeing as how none of the characters actually understand each other) are ultimately unsatisfying, but no. Everyone seems completely happy as long as they have someone to talk at. When circumstances take that away they are exactly where they began or worse off. At one point, two of the secondary characters that have quite a lot in common actually get together and talk to each other. They end up not only not satisfied, but furious. Like they are just happier when the person they're talking to doesn't talk back.

The only character that seems to have any clue at all is the diner owner, Biff Brannon. He watches all of these people hover around Singer like moths around a nightlight. He knows that each of them are just projecting themselves onto Singer and he doesn't understand why they're all satisfied. In the end, nothing really changes even for him.

At times, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter seems so pointlessly nihilistic and at others it's like I'm the only one not getting it. I've read a lot of reviews of this book and, honestly, I feel like the readers are projecting themselves onto the book just like the characters and Singer. They make something larger out of what's there and everyone's satisfied. While I do think the book is worth a read, I don't think it's some amazing masterpiece. There are a lot of details that bothered me, but even the big picture seemed somehow less than what I'd expected.

Carson McCullers is a good technical writer and I would be interested in reading another of her books, but The Heart is a Lonely Hunter is by no means one of my favorite classics.

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