“Often he talked to Mr. Singer. With him he spoke of chemistry and the enigma of the universe. Of the infinitesimal sperm and the cleavage of the ripened egg. Of the complex million-fold division of cells. Of the mystery of living matter and the simplicity of death. And also he spoke with him of race.”
- The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, by Carson McCullers,
This is one of those novels that you hear a lot about but never anything specific. Everyone knows the plot of Moby Dick or Gone With the Wind, but anyone who hadn’t read The Heart is a Lonely Hunter would be hard-pressed to say what it was about, or even name the setting. Personally, I had thought it was a gothic romance novel. Even now that I have read it and know myself to have been drastically wrong, I’m not sure I can narrow the action down to a particular theme. It’s a broad novel, terribly broad and terribly specific. It’s about poverty, class, race, growing up, and loneliness. It’s about the Depression-era South and a small town. It’s about four people whose loneliness converges on a single target, a mute man named Singer. These people consist of an itinerant drunk socialist, a watchful night-shift bar owner, a black doctor bitter with idealism, and a musically gifted tomboy without enough money for a radio. They all come to pour out their hearts to Mr. Singer, and his own isolation is broken only by a mute roommate whose presence is slowly withdrawn over the course of the novel. Singer becomes a sort of god set up by each person in the image of their desired confidant—the perfect listener who voices no opinions of his own. Meanwhile need and desire are driving each character slowly crazy: economic and educational equality for the socialist and the doctor, music and companionship for the girl, and the intense need to understand everyone, to figure everyone out, for the bar owner. Singer himself desires only the company of his friend, who has been committed to a mental institution far away, and even that relationship seems one-sided and mostly imaginary. The intensity of desire and poignancy of purpose drive the novel forward, and the hopelessness of both cause it to hover on the edge of despair. The language is profound without ever being noticeable, so nearly does it drive at truth and meaning. Imagine reading To Kill a Mockingbird, but if it also was about the essential futility of trying to connect with other people and the driving maddening pursuit of attempting it.
Gorgeous, tragic, and the best book I’ve read this year.
Read it in summer, preferably a southern small-town summer, swelteringly hot, humid as a swamp, and bitter with the weight of history.