Flannery O'Connor is one of the strangest and most disturbing writers I've read. When I finish reading her work I'm overcome by a profound unease. Her stories don't immediately satisfy, but are complex, painful and mysterious. Wise Blood is more upsetting than a gruesome horror novel because it truly explores isolation, violence and despair. None of her characters here have true friends, and the only ones with family, blind preacher Asa Hawks and his teenage daughter Sabbath Lily, don't love each other.
Her protagonist, Hazel Motes, is an ex-soldier who returns from World War II to find that his home town no longer exists. The grandson of a travelling preacher, his years away have rendered him a bitter atheist, and he shacks up with a prostitute in a new city, determined to blaspheme.
Motes is a cold and joyless man, who despite his antireligious beliefs chooses a suit which makes him look like a preacher. He's mistaken for one even by a taxi driver taking him to the known prostitute's home. This infuriates him, though he becomes a preacher for his own church, a Church Without Christ, which proudly proclaims that Jesus was a liar. In his new city he meets Asa and Sabbath, who beg strangers for money and distribute Christian leaflets. Hazel begins harassing them, unaware of their true motives and natures, which become apparent over time.
He also comes across Enoch Emery, an eighteen-year old zookeeper who's lived alone since his father abandoned him. Emery is no less tortured than Motes, and also driven by blasphemy. Emery believes he has "wise blood," which pushes him towards revelation without spiritual or intellectual guidance. His blood leads him to a mummified dwarf in a museum on the zoo's grounds, and tells him that this ancient creature is the "new jesus."
It's interesting to note that O'Connor doesn't capitalise "Jesus" when used in connection with Emery's dwarf; I think she's emphasising that this saviour isn't real. What Emery becomes provides the true revelation, that his "wise blood" has led him to a false idol and down into nothingness. His last scene is also my favourite in the novel. Driven mad by loneliness, he can only be pitied. This city he's found himself in is hostile and unwelcoming.
The second half of Wise Blood is the most disturbing, because Motes' and Emery's respective obsessions finally consume them. Motes descends even further than Emery, who's essentially an innocent, and turns into a gross, twisted monster. The tortures he inflicts on himself in pursuit of blasphemy and a godless universe grow darker.
Wise Blood is a very grim novel with few likeable characters, but it's also beautiful and thought-provoking. O'Connor's prose is elegantly crafted, and conveys her sense of sadness and doom with unflinching vision.