Brian Allen Carr’s Short Bus and Flannery O’Connor’s “Aspects of the Grotesque in Southern Fiction”

Brian Allen Carr’s collection of stories, Short Bus (Texas Review Press), is dedicated to the memory of William Patrick Carr (1977-2000). I rarely start a review, or consideration of a book with the dedication, but it seems apt to do so with this enormously sorrowful, beautiful collection of stories. I’ve yet to meet a human being who hasn’t suffered, usually tremendously, a horrible loss at some point in their lives. But not everyone can or will turn that loss into art. Carr does just that and more. This does not mean his work is entirely autobiographical, but Carr knows from where he writes.

Most urgent, moving writing is born out of suffering and tragedy. But it  can also be funny, even hilarious, even if underlying that humor is a felt darkness and raw pain. And in suffering, moments of grace are even more evident, unexpected, and not taken for granted.

Short Bus takes place in Texas, and the regional qualities of Carr’s landscape become a character in its own right. While reading his collection, I immediately needed to re-read Flannery O’Connor’s essays, because I knew that her words would better help me explain what is so brilliant about Carr’s book.  O’Connor writes in the essay “The Regional Writer” that, “The best American fiction has always been regional.” By this, she doesn’t mean a literal description of landscape, she means more than that, but Carr does give us a vision of where his stories take place:

I lie between a checkpoint and a border. South ten miles and across a river, the wild Mexican state of Frontera Tamaulipas. North fifty miles, the town of Falfurrias Texas where police dogs sniff cars for illegals and narcotics, their wet noses shiny as freshly minted change. August and the temperature is a hundred fifteen. In the field behind my house the cacti parch, their skins paling in the sun, their needles a vivid yellow against the backdrop of anemic sky. It could get hotter. Thin wisps of clouds like strands of smoke haunt the horizon, and flames swill across the perimeter of the sun.

This is the land where his stories take place and it’s a place I’ve never been to but now feel as if I know like the back of my hand. Most significantly, the people who inhabit this land, this specific part of Texas, are shaped, at the very least, and maybe more succinctly, become an extension of their surroundings, of the world, the land, they live in.

O’Connor writes in her essay “The Grotesque in Southern Fiction”:

In these grotesque works, we find that the writer has made alive some experience which we are not accustomed to observe every day, or which the ordinary man may never experience in his ordinary life. We find that connections which we would expect in the customary kind of realism have been ignored, that there are strange skips and gaps… Yet the characters have an inner coherence, if not always a coherence to their social framework. Their fictional qualities lean away from typical social patterns, toward mystery and the unexpected.

Carr’s stories, every single one of them, evoke the grotesque as described by O’Connor, if not in a more ordinary sense as well. The title story, “Short Bus,” is told from the point of view of a teacher of special needs, or, as the narrator says, “retarded” children. He, like every character in this collection, is no hero, but he has his moments. He’s not entirely likable, in my mind, like most people. When describing how he got his job he explains:

You might be wondering why they gave me this job? Even though I picked my nose during the interview? Even though I burped and scratched my balls? Even though I sat there thinking, Please don’t hire me, please don’t hire me, please don’t hire me?

But he does get hired and when asking why the other teacher left, the administrator explains:

“They tried to stab her with scissors.”

“Excuse me?”

“Scissors,” she said, and moved her hand in a stabbing motion.

“Which one?” I asked.

“Which one what?”

“Which one tried to stab her?” I asked.  I wanted to know who to look out for.

“All of them,” she told me.

“All of them?”

“Well not Marisol,” Hillary said. “She can’t really move.”

In essence, his job is impossible and sad. He drinks too much with the driver of the short bus. He actually loves these hopeless children in a very unsentimental way, because love can be realistic, even mocking, even caustic. He cares. He is, in essence, a lost soul, as we all are. Herein lies the magic of Carr’s writing: Deeply flawed characters reflect something deep and true about human nature, about our souls. And despite their horrible actions (murder, bank robbing, alcohol abuse, hate, misguided love), we often feel compassion for them, and when we don’t—when evil is just evil—it in no way takes away from his examination of what it means to be human. This is no small feat. It’s a balancing act in some way, and in another way, it is Carr’s ability to dig very deeply into, as O’Connor wrote, “the mystery and the unexpected.”

O’Connor is very snide when it comes to compassion:

It’s considered an absolute necessity these days for writers to have compassion. Compassion is a word that sounds good in anybody’s mouth and which no book jacket can do without. It is a quality which no one can put his finger on in any exact critical sense, so it is safe for anybody to use. Usually I think what is meant by it is that the writer excuses all human weakness because human weakness is human. The kind of hazy compassion demanded of the writer now makes it difficult for him to be anti-anything. Certainly when the grotesque is used in a legitimate way, the intellectual and moral judgments implicit in it will have the ascendency over feeling.

Carr uses the grotesque in a legitimate way. There are no easy ways out of the hot messes that his characters find themselves in. And grotesque his characters are. The brilliant story “Hot Mess” begins:

My father used to ask at the dinner table if we needed water.

“Water?” he’d say and pass the rolls. “Ice water?” Then send the greens. “Cold water?” And the butter would go clockwise. “Need water?” Bread across the table.

My father set my brother’s face on fire.

My brother’s burnt face, his lips jagged and scarred, against my neck, parting as he laughs, and pressure as he pulls my hand behind me and drives my knuckles against my back.

We also meet the younger brother’s, the narrator’s mother:

My mother smoked three packs a day until the day of her diagnosis. In every old picture of her there’s a cigarette between her lips, or she’s reaching for an ashtray. She smoked so much that the walls in the house turned from yellow to green. So much that my elementary teachers asked me if I smoked, because the stench followed me on my clothes wherever I’d go. In all my memories smoke pours from her smile. I used to think my mother made the clouds.

O’Connor writes:

It’s not necessary to point out that the look of this fiction is going to be wild, that it is almost of necessity going to be violent and comic…Even though the writer who produces grotesque fiction may not consider his characters any more freakish than ordinary fallen man usually is, his audience is going to; and it so going to ask him—or more often, tell him—why he has chosen to bring such maimed souls alive.

Carr brings his “retarded,” burned, and maimed characters alive because as O’Connor says, “it is when the freak can be sensed as a figure for our essential displacement that he attains some depth in literature.” In other words, not all of these stories are stories of redemption, although some are. When redemption happens, the cost is high, grace does not come easily, and “our essential displacement” is always evident. I love the idea of “our essential displacement” and I love how Carr in this book captures it, understand it. I’m always alarmed when people write disparagingly about characters not being likable, about writers looking down on their characters, about characters not being worthy of compassion. I often think, what world do these people live in? Can my world, and the world of so many people I’ve come to know in my forty-four years on this earth be that different than others? I think not. O’Connor received a letter complaining about her work, the letter writer saying she “wishes to read something that will lift up [her] heart. And it seems her heart had not been lifted up…I think if her heart was in the right place, it would have been lifted up.” Carr demands that our hearts be in the right place. By this I don’t mean the easy compassion of which O’Connor is frankly mocking. On the contrary, he demands our hearts judge, for good and bad, what he lays before us.

My favorite story (and I loved all of them) is “Whisper to Scar.”  The father is the narrator. It’s not a long story and I gravitate to the long story, so it’s even more impressive that this five and half page story made such an impact on me.  It begins:

The boy thinks I’ve stolen his hand. He thinks I’ve hidden it. Locked it away in a cupboard. That’s what I do with the food. I lock it away so that he can’t find it. If I didn’t he’d eat everything. Then he gets fat. Fatter than he is. Thirteen years old and three hundred pounds. Pale thick fat slapped around him, as if God was making a snowman, but used fat for snow.

He’s got a bad smell. Nothing keeps him clean. His body rejects itself, sending beads of sweat racing out pores as he sits. He’s a slimy bubble of lard, with heavy-pepper reek of an obesity from mayonnaise. I wish he weren’t my son.

At the moment he’s staring at the place where his hand used to be. Before it got infected and had to be removed. It’s a gentle lobe, but more than rumor of incident. It looks like a hotdog end, sown up into itself.

I’ve caught him talking to it. Whispers.

I wonder how Carr wrote this, in what state a person can write something so exquisite. I am a terrible speller, so I had to look up how to spell exquisite. I knew what it meant, and yet because I had to look up how to spell it, I had the pleasure of reading a brief meaning of the word: “Extremely beautiful, and typically, delicate.” This may be a strange thing to say about a story that involves a disgusting maimed child—a clearly “grotesque” person—a meth head mother, a father who contemplates killing the son he wishes weren’t his. And yet it is the word, the perfect word, to describe this story. O’Connor writes about the writers of the grotesque: “Such a writer will be interested in what we don’t understand rather than in what we do.” Carr has such interest. And that interest invokes the mystery that O’Connor demands that a writer plumb. When that happens, literature becomes exquisite, food for the mind, the soul.

O’Connor asks that a writer discover

how far he can distort without destroying, and in order not to destroy, he will have to descend far enough into himself…This descent into himself will, at the same time, be a descent into his region. It will be a descent through the darkness of the familiar into a world where, like a blind man cured in the gospels, he sees men as if they were trees, but walking. This is the beginning of vision…

Carr has the “beginning of vision.” He writes of his region, of the grotesque, of the great mystery of our existence, of our moral worthiness that lies in the judgment of something far beyond our capacity to understand. O’Connor would be pleased, to say the least.

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