Thanks to “Parker’s Back” (I’m Back)

Today I had to laugh. A reader e-mailed to ask if I was dead. No, I am not dead. That e-mail was the match that lit this post, but Flannery O’Connor was the fuel. Her short story “Parker’s Back,” since I read it over the weekend, like an icon lit by freaky candles, has haunted me. It explains why “Why I Am Catholic” can never be answered satisfactorily. And “Why I Can’t Escape Being Catholic” is an even more compelling question.

Short capsule bio: Flannery O’Connor (above), Southern Catholic woman writer, lived with her mother on a dairy farm, raised peahens, wrote two novels, a passel of short stories, a few essays, many lovely letters, died of lupus at 39.

Synopsis: O. E. Parker, a marginal, all-but-no-good cracker like many O’Connor characters, has a body covered with tattoos, everywhere but his back; falls for a woman whose appeal is inexplicable, she being skinny, cantankerous, unlike the soft, round, pliant, numerous women he has known before. Funniest passage in the whole story illustrates her mysterious appeal:

As he reached for her, she thrust him away with such force that the door of the truck came off and he found himself flat on his back on the ground. He made up his mind then and there to have nothing further to do with her. (Paragraph break) They were married in the County Ordinary’s office because Sarah Ruth thought churches were idolatrous. 

Have you ever fallen in love with someone this way? Is this not how all of us (at least us converts) fall in love with the Church? She is unlike any woman we’ve known, and for all that, magnetic and forceful as the daylights.

Synopsis resumed: Once married, Parker becomes gloomy, Sarah Ruth becomes pregnant. One day, Parker crashes his tractor into a tree which goes up in flames like a great burning cross, he goes straight to the tattoo parlor, asks for “the book you got with all the pictures of God in it,” won’t settle for anything less than Jesus. As he flips through the book, this image seems to speak to him:

. . . the haloed head of a flat stern Byzantine Christ with all-demanding eyes. He sat there trembling; his heart began slowly to beat again as if it were being brought to life by a subtle power.

“You found what you want?” the artist asked.

Parker’s throat was too dry to speak. He got up and thrust the book at the artist, opened at the picture. 

“That’ll cost you plenty,” the artist said.

It’ll cost you nothing less than everything. Synopsis concluded: Parker goes crawling back to Sarah Ruth (great Old Testament name, no?) and to gain entry to their home, he must whisper his real name through the keyhole: Obadiah Elihue. She takes one look at the Christ on his back and growls, “Another picture. I might have known you was off after putting some more trash on yourself.”

But it’s God! Parker moans. God! “No,” she says, “God don’t look like that. He don’t look. He’s a spirit. No man shall see his face.” She drives him out of the house, screaming that he is an idolator and beating him over the back with her broom until “large welts had formed on the face of the tattooed Christ.”

Our last glimpse of Parker, and Sarah Ruth’s, finds him leaning against the one tree in their yard (another tree!). He is “crying like a baby.”

I don’t know why this story haunts me so. In the past four days, I have read it three times, started reading it aloud to Katie, told two good friends about it . . . Is it that, for the Catholic, Christ can become much more than a “spirit,” a wondrous figure from history who did nice things and taught us to be nice? Is it that, by the time faith begins whacking you with its broom and raising welts, Christ is real, not real like an idol, real like a person, present, here, now. One that follows you everywhere, standing behind you, adding His gaze to yours, a gaze so powerful it dries your throat and has the power to burn right through you?

There’s much left to ponder here—while waiting for my death, rumors of which have been exaggerated.

  • Allison

    Welcome back! So nice to read this.

  • Webster Bull

    Thanks to you, Allison, and to Frank for keeping the fires burning in my absence!

  • Frank

    Um, if Webster had died, I would have written a post about it peeps! Sheesh. ;-D

  • Webster Bull

    Let's hope so!

  • Lucy

    Ooooh,Flannery O' enticingly meaty topic to be sure!I read all of her stories last spring, but had to find help in deciphering her rich metaphors and symbols. Thanks to this wonderful blog (with an adorable name I love) and their "Friday's With Flannery" series, I found what I needed to decode the meanings: Her stories haunt you, and that's how she wanted it. She wanted to shock the reader into waking up to stark realities and come to understand the workings of grace upon the soul. I really like her. I especially like how she demonstrates God's love for poor, ignorant, sinful slobs!

  • Frank

    poor, ignorant, sinful slobs…like all of us!

  • Terry Fenwick

    Glad I came back to read and click – it was great!!!! Terry again- I posted you on my site

  • Suzanne Tanzi

    Hi Webster! This story was a focal point at the Meeting in Rimini which hosted 800,000 people, at least some of whom I'm sure were as haunted as you are! You should talk to Annie Devlin (curator) when you get a chance. My musings: Was it Parker's brush with mortality that made him choose that image, not on the front where he could see it but on the back, where he could be protected, where he trusted it was there without seeing it? His pristine back! A jaded man but not jaded there. Contrary to your image of our relationship with the Church, Sarah Ruth reminds me of the demons that come screaming out of the possessed when Jesus expels them. She is worse than the Misfit!More on this now you have me revisiting it all…Suzanne

  • Webster Bull

    Suzanne, Well, I didn't make it to Rimini, so "the interpretations expressed on this blog are those of the writers alone and do not reflect the Authority of the Church or even that of the finest literary critics." But after all, isn't it Flannery's greatness that she haunts us even when her stories can be interpreted so differently. But then perhaps that's one reason they haunt us. Thanks! WB

  • Lucy

    @Frank…"like all of us!"Exactly! It's so reassuring to read about God's love for sinners when reading the saints can sometimes cause me to despair of myself. :)

  • Judith

    Just found the link to this post – appreciated the further link to the black cordelias.I think it was Katherine Anne Porter (Ship of Fools) who wrote O'Connor that with this short story she had "succeeded in dramatizing a heresy."