FLANNERY O'CONNOR: A LIFE. By JEAN W. CASH. University of Tennessee Press. 392 pp. $30.
WRITING OF HER MOTHER, Flannery O'Connor once told a friend, "I always thought that if she had a dog she'd name him Spot--without irony. If I had a dog I'd name him Spot, with irony. But for all practical purposes no one would know the difference."
By its nature, irony is the most ephemeral of literary devices, and the wit, or malice, or affection it encrypts is inherently fugitive. Authors who trade in such wares must content themselves with a small audience even among their contemporaries, and the truly discerning readership inevitably diminishes with every passing year.
If Flannery O'Connor's work has suffered mischief at the hands of critics and commentators, her relentlessly mordant irony and deadpan self-mockery are partly to blame. She expressed her deepest affections in a prose so sardonic as to seem like abuse to the inattentive. "I come from a family," she said, "where the only emotion respectable to show is irritation. In some this tendency produces hives, in others literature. In me both." Few readers share her religious and political sympathies; fewer still her delight in the violently incongruous. She relished life in the South not in spite of but, in part, because of its homegrown absurdities. A self-described "hillbilly Thomist," she made the heroes of her fiction not Catholics but Protestants--radical nonconformists, more accurately--who are in perpetual collision with the complacent heathendom that surrounds them. Perhaps the most explicit statement of her authorial intent is found in a 1963 letter written to a nun:To a lot of Protestants I know, monks and nuns are fanatics, none greater. And to a lot of monks and nuns I know, my Protestant prophets are fanatics. For my part, I think the only difference between them is that if you are a Catholic and have this intensity of belief, you join the convent and are heard from no more; whereas if you are a Protestant and have it,...