[(essay date fall 1996) In the following essay, Prunty investigates the role of vacancy in the stories of Peter Taylor and O'Connor.]
In Flannery O'Connor's "A Good Man Is Hard to Find," the grandmother is the first to comment upon the blankness of the sky. Later the Misfit says, "Don't see no sun but don't see no cloud neither." In Peter Taylor's less familiar but equally masterful "A Wife of Nashville," Helen Ruth stands silently behind a tea cart and looks into the dark recesses of her living room as she prepares to explain to the men of her family why Jess McGehee had to lie about leaving. The blank sky of the one story and a prolonged silence in the other are only two of many figures for despair, but they provide a good place to begin thinking about the figure of vacancy.
For both O'Connor and Taylor, narrative leads to gaps. These may appear as a nondescript sky or the recesses of a room, or they may take the form of a zero unwittingly added to a date or a lie added to a story. However they come about, they refute normal expectations and lead to what is unique and essential about a story.
Flannery O'Connor introduces the raw realities of life in rural Georgia, then uses wit, caricature and even cartoon-like violence to void normal expectations and achieve situations more complicated than ordinary description uncovers. Not made to face what frequently are O'Connor's violent extremes, Peter Taylor's characters nevertheless place each other in extremis so the complexities of their lives are put in relief. For both writers this is done by pairing characters, pairing their situations and actions so the ordinary closure we expect from a story is broken open and what follows is vacancy. In the hands of O'Connor and Taylor, this has become a figure for despair.
Compared to O'Connor's, Peter Taylor's characters march by in rounded and unexaggerated form. Characterization follows the conventions of literary realism and avoids the religious allegory of O'Connor's fiction. The people who most often populate Taylor's stories are individuals of substantial means and reliable judgement who find themselves operating by codes that no longer hold sway, as they stand politely isolated while their world disintegrates around them. But Taylor's gentle folk do share one important trait with O'Connor's rustics, and that is vacancy. Well-heeled and ruminative as they are, Taylor's characters parallel O'Connor's when they confront their own bleak ends. For Taylor's people, despair results from individual and cultural blind spots. While O'Connor pushes her characters beyond society's terms to absolute ends, Taylor's characters experience neither the violence nor the terror that O'Connor raises, but they, too, are misfits. They stand before equally powerful forms of vacancy, muted as those forms may be by the mores of Chatham, Thornton, Nashville and Memphis.
The Southerners who populate O'Connor's "A Good Man Is Hard to Find" are flat, yet exaggerated individuals facing their own meanness and mortality. Paralleling one of...