The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers
...in his face there was still the look of peace that is seen most often in those who are very wise or very sorrowful.
This is the first time I’ve read The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, or Carson McCullers. The book is a modernist, existential, southern gothic novel. The third-person narrative is the story of John Singer, a deaf mute, living in Georgia in the late 1930s.
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
This was my first time reading this novel, so I had no idea of the plot. Little did I know…it doesn’t have one. (bit of an exaggeration, but not much) That may sound like criticism, but it isn’t. The novel is decidedly character driven. The characters are hopelessly flawed, completely believable and utterly empathizeable. (I know…it’s not a word, but it’s the non-word I need.) For it is the characters that make this story enjoyable.
The story begins with John Singer and his roommate and friend Spiros Antonapoulos who is also deaf and mute. They have separate jobs, walk to and from work together, and have no other friends. Antonapoulos says very little, that is signs very little, but Singer “talks” quite a bit when they are home together. The reader, and Singer, are not certain how much Antonapoulos discerns. The two get along quite well, until Antonapoulos is institutionalized after several run-ins with the law. He shows no emotion when boarding the bus and leaving Singer. I was actually glad for this development, as I felt Antonapoulos was not a very good friend. He was a glutton, rather simple, and offered very little to Singer.
This leaves Singer to cope alone, which he manages quite well. He begins more interaction with people of the town, four of whom develop a friendship with him. Their admiration grows to a near obsession. There is Mick Kelly, a thirteen-year-old tomboy of a poor family, Jake Blount a drifter and communist, Biff Brannon a recent widower and owner of the local café, and Dr. Copeland an African-American physician.
Each pour out their hearts to Singer. He is fairly adept at reading lips, and his peaceful demeanor and intent smile lead each to believe he understands and sympathizes. In fact, they all believe Singer to be profoundly wise and good, proving what it says in the old book
….even a fool, when he holdeth his peace is counted wise.
Singer is no fool mind you, but neither is he the enlightened sage his friends imagine him to be. Mick dreams of being a musician but senses she is trapped in her life with no hope for her dreams. Jack, the communist agitator disdainfully categorizes people as those who know, and those who don’t. Dr. Copeland longs to fight for what he calls the strong, true purpose, but mostly he just broods on the plight of his people. Brannon doesn’t speak much, but he seems to be seeking something. All four hold Singer in confidence and seem to find comfort and hope in his presence. Unfortunately, the realization that he is as lost and confused as themselves, does not come gradually. It comes in a single, violent moment.
Singer is described often with his hands in his pockets. I thought it odd that McCullers kept mentioning this, until I realized…he speaks with his hands. Once Antonapoulos left, there was no one for Singer to speak to – hence he kept his hands thrust into his pockets.
Actually quite brilliant. Why McCullers is a published author and I am not.
There is a touching scene when Singer travels to visit Antonapoulos, and chances upon three deaf mutes that he can communicate with. They immediately welcome him into their group and for the first time in the story, I was happy for Singer because he had someone to listen to him. But sadly, he grows taciturn and the moment passes.
I enjoyed this story, even for the lack of a plot. The characters were compelling, especially Singer. Like the four lonely hunters, I too believed Singer had something special to offer. And in a sense, he did; he listened. That alone is something. But McCullers allowed me to gradually realize what the hunters did not. Their hearts were deluded…they thought…they believed…they perceived…that Singer understood. That’s the chord this story touches: the need to feel that someone understands.
A word about the author: Carson McCullers is a woman. To the very literary, this is not news, but to me it was. I probably should have guessed based on the title…I don’t think a dude would have come up with the title, though it is perfect. So for the record…Evelyn Waugh is a man, Carson McCullers is a woman. Mick is at least partially based on McCullers who was a promising musician, accepted to the Julliard School of Music, but unable to attend for lack of tuition. Fortunately, she studied creative writing at Columbia…and that worked out pretty well.
Narrative regarding Singer:
All kinds of people became acquainted with him. If the person who spoke to him was a stranger, Singer presented his card so that his silence would be understood. He came to be known through all the town. He walked with his shoulders very straight and kept his hands in his pockets. His gray eyes seemed to take in everything around him, and in his face there was still the look of peace that is seen most often in those who are very wise or very sorrowful.
Film Rendition: There is a 1968 film version with Alan Arkin as Singer, and Sondra Locke as Mick. It was well cast, and fairly faithful, but it didn't quite capture the feeling of the book.