Review of The Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers

First read: 3/2002
Reviewed on: 3/14/2002
Click here to buy it

I did not like it.
I liked it.
I thought it one of the Best Novels of All Time


Dear Mr. "Doug,"

I was wondering why you haven't reviewed the best book on the list, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers. It is the best book that I have ever read in my life. It is a montage of many people's lives that come together through the book. They are all outcasts of society that live separated from each other's, yet they have so much in common. I think it is the most moving book of the list and you have to read this one next.

Your fan,

Dear Charles,

Thank you for the permission to reprint your email.  After I read it, I went out and bought a copy of the book, partially because of your description, but mostly because you said you were my "fan."  Math professors tend not to get "fans," and I think this sort of thing should be encouraged.

I found this to be an understated book.  Many of my favorite books shout their quality out at you.  "LOOK AT HOW WELL THIS SENTENCE IS WRITTEN!" they scream, or "HOLY MOTHER OF GOD, YOU DIDN'T EXPECT SANDY TO BE THE TRAITOR, DID YOU?  I AM SO WELL PLOTTED", or "WHAT DID YOU THINK OF THAT DESCRIPTION?  COOL, EH?"  And I like books that are aggressively good.  This book wasn't like that, though.  You don't point to a particular page and go "Jeez!  This is awesome!"  Instead, you just get wrapped up into a world with six or seven characters who are genuinely nice people.  There are no villains in this novel.

Let me tell you about something that happened to me in high school, Charles.  It was towards the end of my Senior year, and I was at a party that was attended by the cool kids,  the band kids, and the other cliques.  Everybody was being really friendly.  I met the girl of my dreams that night.  She had pale skin, black hair, dark eyes, and a black ribbon that she wore around her neck making a seamless band.  And the thing about her was... she understood.  I told her things that I thought about that I would never tell anyone else my age, and she was getting it.  And I told her of my theories, and my interests, and she was... with me.  And sometimes she would throw in a comment that was so ...out there that I would have to think hard to figure out what she meant.

When I asked my friend F. about her she laughed at me.  "You are in love with the Snow Queen?"  Evidently, this woman was heavily into cocaine, very passive, and not very bright, and that I was projecting, allowing her vacant stare and too-sexy black ribbon to allow me to believe that she was completely following me.  In retrospect, I believe she wasn't even listening.  Don't feel too bad that I didn't call the Snow Queen; she wound up dating one of the smartest kids in the class after mine.

And of course this brings us to John Singer, one of the most fascinating, realistic, and gentle characters you will ever meet in a novel.  He's deaf and mute.  And people love to talk to him, thinking he understands.  And he does, to an extent, as he can read their lips when they don't speak too fast.  But they project everything on to him, like I did with the Snow Queen.   Like some people do when they talk to me.  Last night, I went to a bar by myself, something that I rarely do.  I had just finished the novel, and felt like having a martini in a dark room filled with human beings.  A man sat next to me, and within moments he was talking to me.  And when he found out I was a mathematician, he began talking carpentry and home-building to me.  I kept telling him that I didn't understand some of the terms he was using, but he said, "sure you do" and kept going. And then he would make esoteric jokes and I would smile because I tend to smile when someone tells a joke, even if I don't get it, and he would LAUGH and smack me on the shoulder with his sun-burned hand, and suddenly I would have another drink in front of me. He thought I understood.  For some reason, many people react to me this way.  I used to think it was because I like to learn and like to listen, and people sense that.  But now I am thinking that I was wrong... maybe people like to unburden themselves to me because, like John Singer, I am a gentle person.  And in my society, gentle people are rare enough that gentleness is misinterpreted as understanding in the spiritual soul-brother sense.

Notice, Charles, that I said "gentle" not "Gentile."  There are plenty of Gentiles in the world.  Plenty.

I didn't expect to rate this book as one of the best... I didn't realize how truly great a novel it was until about halfway through.  There was a scene of sudden violence.  I had grown so used to the serene mood up until that point that I reacted like... well just like I had witnessed a scene of sudden violence.  My favorite Barista came to my table and asked me something, and I completely blew her off to the point where I think I offended her.  I would never normally blow off my favorite Barista, but I had to... I was in shock.  It wasn't until then that I reflected and realized that I had been enjoying some brilliant writing.  Carson is excellent at setting scenes up to make you react the way she wants you to.

Here's another example - All four of Singer's frequent visitors arrive at once, all expecting his undivided attention.  I've been in that position, both as the visitor and the visited.  And our author has set us up throughout the book so that when this scene happens we empathize and feel the awkwardness from every one of the five points of view at once. 

Charles - how about that Spiros Antonapoulos!  Carson McCullers had Singer as this Tabula Rasa that everyone projects onto... and she gave him his OWN meta-Singer.  The relationship between Singer and Antonapoulos was so thought-provoking that I'm still turning it over in my mind.  How many times did YOU reread that letter that Singer wrote to his illiterate friend?

Once I went on a Winter first-date that wound up naked in an outdoor hot-tub.  I was able to think, "This is one of the greatest moments I've ever experienced."  It was an easy-call to make.  A no-brainer.  This book was not like that.  But there was a particular afternoon when I was walking home from classes and my friend Ed was hiding behind a post next to the theater showing Back to the Future which I hadn't wanted to see but he sprang out with my ticket in his hand and pulled me and I was sitting in the dark before I had time to know what was going on.  It took me several years to realize that it was one of the best times I ever had.

You were right about this one, Charles.  Thank you for your email.

Your fan,
Doctor "Doug"

P.S.  If some of your friends want to order from Amaz*, make sure to tell them not to read the review, for it gives the ending away.

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