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Official News Magazine of the Diocese of Spokane
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New biography examines Flannery O’Connor; at the cineplex, ‘The Soloist,’ ‘State of Play’
by Father Tom Caswell, for the Inland Register
(From the May 21, 2009 edition of the Inland Register)
Back in 1980, author Brad Gooch hoped to write a biography of Flannery O’Connor. He wrote to O’Connor’s friend of many years, who was said to be writing a memoir of O’Connor. The friend, Sally Fitzgerald, brushed him off and said their books would conflict. Gooch waited 20-plus years, and after Fitzgerald died without writing her book, he began a six-year effort that has produced the wonderful new biography, Flannery: A Life of Flannery O’Connor. The book is published in hardcover by Little, Brown and Company of New York for a list price of $30.
I need to admit up front that Flannery
O’Connor is at the top of my list as a favorite fiction writer, although I have to also mention I haven’t read all
of her work. My favorite short story is “Revelation,” which I would hope every Catholic reads at least one time in
his or her life.
O’Connor lived a brief 39 years, most of the time in the small town of Milledgeville, Ga., on a dairy and
eventual cattle ranch named Andalusia, with her mother, Reginia. O’Connor was a daily Mass communicant throughout
her adulthood until her death from lupus in August of 1964.
After college in Georgia, she participated in the Writer Workshops at the University of Iowa and at a
gathering place for working writers called Yaddo, near Saratoga Springs, N.Y. There were times when she wrote briefly
with the Fitzgeralds in Connecticut and on her own in an apartment in New York, where she attended daily Mass at
Ascension Parish at 107th, off Broadway, where a long-standing friend of mine, Father John Duffell, is pastor today.
One time when I was visiting the parish and celebrating daily Mass I gave a homily mentioning that this is the church
where Flannery O’Connor worshiped. I don’t think the congregation of 30 or so thought that fact was particularly
helpful to their religious growth, but it meant a lot to me.
O’Connor’s first novel was Wise Blood, which took years for her to write, starting at the Iowa
Workshop. It is indeed a dark story that seems at least to me far beyond reality. And yet there is something about
it that says there is great hope for all of us in coming to a God at times we may not even believe in.
In a splendid narrative of O’Connor’s life, Brad Gooch recounts several fascinating stories. At age six and
in the first grade, Flannery was brought before her class by her teacher one Monday and asked publicly why she was
not at the children’s Mass on Sunday. The background was that Flannery’s folks always preferred the non-children’s
Mass, which they attended every week. One classmate recalls, “She’d stand there and tell Sister, ‘The Catholic
Church does not dictate to my family what time I go to Mass.’” Also to discourage others from sharing her lunch, she
would sometimes bring castor oil sandwiches.
Flannery wrote many letters to friends and acquaintances through the years. She did seem to fall in love at
least once with Erik Langkjaer, who would come to see her at her home when he was in the area as a textbook salesman
for the Southern region for a publisher. He eventually returned to his homeland in Denmark, where he married. For
Flannery, it was a great loss.
But it was her struggle with the disease lupus over the years of her most fulfilling writing that taught her
much about suffering, and life and death.
Her stories are connected to strong Catholic beliefs, even though most of her characters are from the
majority Protestants of the South. Flannery was deeply influenced by St. Thomas Aquinas, whose Summa was on
her bed stand. Jacques Maritain and Etienne Gilson, who were renewing Thomism in Flannery’s time, were also key
influences on her life and her writing.
Flannery was popular in the late 1950s and ’60s and spoke at many a Catholic college across this country. She
even appeared on The Tonight Show when Steve Allen was the host.
Gooch makes the story of a gutsy Flannery O’Connor come alive. His fondness for her is evident throughout,
although he does point out her prejudices and her weaknesses. It does help if you are familiar with at least some of
Flannery’s short stories, because Gooch continually shows how events in the author’s own life directly affect events
in the stories.
Brad Gooch’s Flannery is a fine work of biography. Flannery O’Connor becomes real in Flannery
and she just may make a difference in your life.
The popular summer movies begin coming out in early May. A thriller with a plot that won’t stop appeared on
the scene in mid-April. It is an old-fashion filmed for adults that is well acted and directed and well worth
State of Play is based on a BBC miniseries that I have not had the opportunity to see. The story has
been shifted from Britain to the United States.
As the film begins there are three murders in rapid succession. One of those killed is the beautiful Sonia Baker
(Maria Thayer) who is working for Congressman Stephen Collins (Ben Affleck). Was this part of a giant conspiracy
involving a huge company doing work for the United States military?
A former college roommate of the Congressman is a gritty newspaperman for the main Washington D. C. daily.
That reporter, Cal McAffrey (Russell Crowe), is caught in an ethical dilemma as he seeks to report on the murders
that may implicate his friend. A young internet reporter, Delia Frye (Rachel McAdams), is assigned to the case, even
though she never seems to have a pen handy when she needs one. The editor of the paper is Cameron Lynne (Helen
Mirren) who is under pressure to publish stories that attract more readers.
So we have at least two cases of infidelity that are very important to the plot. The supporting roles are
significant as Jeff Daniels plays a powerful congressman who may be using Rep. Collins. Daniels’ character seems
willing to cut Collins loose as the personal scandal widens and the power of the private company working for the
military seems all-encompassing. Jason Bateman plays a public relation man who becomes crucial to the story, as
toward the end, he seems to know more than anyone what is going on.
The screenplay, by Matthew Michael Carnahan, Tony Gilroy, and Billy Ray, is extraordinary. You think the
plot is leading you to the guilty party one minute and then all of a sudden you find yourself going another
direction. Talk about twists and turns. This film is a roller-coaster ride par excellence. The crisp direction by
Kevin Macdonald adds to the film's excitement.
Russell Crowe and Helen Mirren stand out as the superstars that they are. Their characterizations of
reporter and editor are spot on. In the end, the movie’s bias is for the importance of newspapers. As a reader who
was not allowed to read a newspaper for the eight years of the seminary many years ago, the film doesn’t have to
convince me. I only hope that as we pass through this extraordinary age of the computer and the internet we as a
people will still find value in the task of the printed newspaper. It is certainly in a vulnerable position today.
The Motion Picture Association of America rates State of Play PG-13 – parents strongly cautioned.
Some material may be inappropriate for children under 13. The Office for Film and Broadcasting of the U.S. Conference
of Catholic Bishops rates the film A-III – for adults.
As newspapers are said to be a dying institution, with falling advertising and readership, a second movie on
the importance of the written word appears after State of Play, titled The Soloist.
The Soloist is thoughtful film about the importance of music, the reality of mental illness, and the
need for friendship in our lives. It is not without some problems, but in the end well worth seeing.
The story is based on a series of articles by Los Angeles Times columnist Steve Lopez that was later
made into a book.
Lopez is played by Robert Downey Jr. He finds a street person playing a two-string violin beneath a statue
of Beethoven in a downtown Los Angeles park. The homeless man is Nathaniel Anthony Ayers (Jamie Foxx) who speaks
rapidly in wandering speeches about music and many realities of daily life. He states that at one time in his life
he went to the Juilliard School of Music in New York City. Reporter Lopez eventually finds out that Ayers did go to
that school and was gifted, but was unable to finish because of the deepening reality of schizophrenia.
It turns out that at the Juilliard, Ayers played the cello as a prodigy. After an elderly musician reads
about Ayers’s two-string violin she sends him her valuable cello that she can no longer play. Thus begins a growing
connection and eventual friendship between Mr. Lopez and Mr. Ayers, as they call each other.
Lopez hopes to get Ayers into an apartment and off the streets and seeks ways of finding help for the
artist’s mental illness. In the end there is a reversal, where it is the artist who more directly changes the
Shortcomings of the film include the back story of Ayers’ childhood and young adulthood. The flashbacks are
not needed to keep the story moving and we don’t need to have everything explained in detail. The light show
attempting to show what is happening when Ayers attends a rehearsal of the Los Angeles Philharmonic at the beautiful
Walt Disney Concert Hall seems unnecessary and not very impressive. There seems to be a bias against pharmaceutical
help for mental illness. Sure, you can’t force people to take their medication unless there danger of hurting
oneself or others, but it seems to me sometimes chemical medication can be very helpful for some people suffering
from mental illness.
The overviews of Los Angeles are beautiful. The ironies of homes with pools versus the 90,000 people
homeless in the city are clearly brought home.
Robert Downey Jr. and Jamie Foxx are among our best male actors in film today. Their acting in The
Soloist will not go down as their best. But when two actors are so fine, even their less-than-great endeavors
are still very good.
The Soloist is rated PG-13 by the Motion Picture Association of America. The Office for Film and
Broadcasting of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops rates the film A-III – for adults.
(Father Caswell is Ecumenical Relations Officer and archivist for the Diocese of Spokane, and a frequent
contributor to this publication.)
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