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Defector Reads A Book

Let’s All Confess What We Thought Of ‘The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter’

Cover image: HarperCollins. DRAB illustration: Dan McQuade

Welcome back to Defector Reads A Book! Our April pick was Carson McCullers's The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, which the Defector book sickos have read and discussed. Meet us down in the comments whenever you're done reading.

Maitreyi Anantharaman: I am always happy to see a new DRAB-er crawl into the DRAB cave with us. Welcome to Alex! 

Kelsey McKinney: Yes, welcome Alex! Please reveal your sicko ways to us. 

Alex Sujong Laughlin: Hello, I am honored to be here. I was so excited to see that we were doing The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, as I have three copies of it on my Carson McCullers shrine in my office. 

KM: It is important to note that the McCullers shrine is directly over her shoulder in every single meeting, so this book is basically Alex. 

ASL: It’s extremely normal and chill!!! 

Giri Nathan: Which is your favorite copy??

ASL: My friends got me a replica of the first edition for my birthday last year and it’s in a very pretty box so I love that one the most currently. The one I read for DRAB was the copy my high school boyfriend got me for graduation, which still contains a note saying that thanks to me, his heart is “no longer a lonely hunter” 🤮🤮

MA: Aw, sounds like The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter is NOT a lonely hunter in your office. 

KM: WOW!!!! 

ASL: Anyway, I love Carson so much because she is the most famous alumnus of my high school, Columbus High School in Columbus, Georgia (also alma mater of future Bachelorette, Charity Lawson lol). But also because her writing is all about people who are stuck in Columbus and hate it and feel like they don’t fit in.

KM: McKenna isn’t even here and she’s gone Where’d They Go To High School mode! 

MA: The question we force all re-readers to answer: What about this book caught your attention this time around? 

ASL: I actually haven’t re-read this one since high school and uhhh I was mega struck by how much racism there was in it??? Just completely didn’t clock that the first time around. Also, McCullers’s gender ambivalence just screams through at me now, especially since reading Jenn Shapland’s My Autobiography of Carson McCullers, which re-examines her life and work through the lens of the queerness that was mostly erased from official accounts.

KM: Maitreyi and Giri, I’m interested whether the two of you had read this before. I had, but it’s kind of a rite of passage for Southern bookish girls. I also hadn’t read it since high school, so I had basically forgotten everything about it. 

MA: I hadn’t! (Not sure what the Midwestern equivalent is, possibly all the Little House books.) But already I’m thinking it’s the sort of book that would reward re-reading. That post-DRAB feeling I always get—"agh, we forgot to talk about X”—is already sinking in somehow. Gender identity, Alex, is something I paid attention to while reading, having remembered Shapland’s book and her work with the McCullers archives. Violence—racist, domestic, casual—also stood out to me.

GN: I hadn’t read this book, though I always admired the title from afar. I am really glad they did not stick with the original title, The Mute, which would’ve flattened out so much.

KM: I want to ask all of you how you felt about the first five pages of the book, which feels kind of silly. But in my memory of the book, the events of the first five pages take much longer to get through. On re-read I was surprised just by how much happens so quickly, how much plot is crammed into very little space. I didn’t find it disorienting, but I feel like I haven’t read a book with that compact of a sequence in a long time.

MA: Things seem to happen in this book either very slowly or very fast. 

GN: The opening sequence was kind of spell-binding to me. It was this little self-contained and heartbreaking story of a relationship, like (forgive me here) the opening sequence of Up. My reading slowed down significantly once we had to spend time with the other four voices, though I think I turned a corner around a third of the way in once the characters were established and everyone started getting up to stuff.

ASL: It seems like at least for Singer, one of his primary character attributes was longing for Antonapoulos, the giant Greek-shaped hole left in his heart after he leaves. So she had to squeeze all of that in so we knew his deal. I don’t know if it’s my favorite way to have accomplished that but there it is. 

KM: Giri, my pace was exactly the same as that! One thing I found so astounding about this sequence is how McCullers is able, with the tight third-person perspective, to make it clear that Singer loved Antonapoulos so much, and make it clear to the reader that it is very unclear how much Antonapoulos knew or cared about Singer. There’s a disparity there from the beginning that’s very heartbreaking. 

ASL: Yes!! That one-way longing is something that feels really characteristic of McCullers’s characters throughout this novel but also in her other work. It’s like, the loneliest thing isn’t to be alone, but to love someone deeply and for them to not know or care. 

I think that raises for me the question of what Mick really loves. Throughout the novel you see her pursuing these things with a lot of energy and passion—like the party she has for the kids at her school, but also her piano lessons and her friendship with Harry. But at least with the party, I don’t get the sense that she necessarily wants to be friends with these kids.

KM: There’s a kind of throw-away line in the party scene that I found very haunting, where Mick is looking out the window and seeing this mass of kids that were too young to come to the party and kids she didn’t invite because she didn’t like them. And McCullers writes, “They were just hanging around in the dark to watch the party. [Mick] thought of two feelings when she saw those kids — one was sad and the other was a kind of warning.” I read this as the warning being that it just as easily could be her standing outside, and that that is the fate she is truly trying to avoid.

ASL: Ughhhhhhhhh. To get into the gender ambivalence of it all, the party itself was this charade of gender where everyone got dressed up and played good boys and girls for the night. It’s like a mini version of a debutante ball. As a contemporary reader, I see Mick pursuing this to avoid ostracism and I’m like, “Nooooo, just move to New York and find a nice girl to settle down with!” But throughout the novel she plays back into the performance as a necessity of her coming of age. It reminds me a lot of the ending of the Greta Gerwig Little Women, the way an author writes a character doppelganger who fully represents them but conforms to social mores just enough to be acceptable. 

MA: Mick and Biff Brannon are interesting to compare in that regard. Mick is coming of age, but Brannon also experiences some turmoil in his life. His wife’s death accelerates his own anxieties about his gender identity—almost like a second coming of age. He redecorates his place, he starts wearing his wife’s perfume. Lucile tells him he’d make a good mother and he’s flattered by it—that seems to be what he really wants. (The title of this novel, by the way, comes from a poem written by someone who took a woman's pseudonym.) And Mick and Brannon also have a weird relationship. Mick tells Harry she dislikes Brannon, but Brannon is kind of obsessed with her, maybe in a maternal way, but maybe in a different way? He’s conventional to an extent and calls himself “conservative” to Blount, but he’s drawn to social boundaries and the people who live on them. One of the first things he says in the book, in a conversation with his wife, is, “I like freaks.” 

ASL: I had forgotten about that line. Brannon represented for me someone who quieted his freakiness until something huge shakes up his life. The other characters I think are different in ways that they can’t help, either because of their race or their disabilities. But Mick and Brannon I think are freaks in ways that can be covered up if they choose to do so, and I wonder if that is somehow behind Brannon’s affinity for Mick.

GN: Brannon was a very frustrating character for me to read, possibly by design. We get very deep into the inner life of all the other characters, so deep that it often feels that nothing has been left unsaid, but with Brannon we’re left these alluring hints—I was fascinated as soon as he said he washed his torso daily but the rest of his body just “twice a season”—while his own day-to-day thoughts are perhaps the most plain and unremarkable of the bunch. And somehow Singer has pegged him as the most “thoughtful” of his four therapy clients? I think by the end of the book I started to appreciate the obliqueness of his depiction slightly more, but as I read it, I wanted to be let inside. Also, his redecorated room sounds beautiful—great work Biff.

KM: I also found Brannon very frustrating to read! But I couldn’t tell if it was by design or not. It kind of felt like McCullers was intentionally keeping her distance from him. I wonder if that’s partly just because I’m not sure that audiences at the time would have loved being inside his brain, or if it was some kind of blockade McCullers erected unintentionally because she as a person didn’t want to analyze him, which does feel connected to the gender ambivalence we are talking about. 

ASL: The washing was WILD because it’s like…very humid down there and this was before AC!

GN: I initially just filed that detail away alongside the hints about impotence—maybe it was a source of marital embarrassment he didn’t want to be reminded of—but the more I read the more I felt it was part of that broader gender ambivalence.

MA: Mick and Brannon both live these compartmentalized lives. Literally, for Brannon. His life is separated into a turbulent “upstairs” and an unassuming “downstairs.” Mick divides her own life into the “outside room,” all her day-to-day obligations and pressures, and “the inside room,” where she retreats to think and dream: “The inside room was a very private place. She could be in the middle of a house full of people and still feel like she was locked up by herself.” When she’s sorting everything into “outside” and “inside,” she puts Singer into both. He’s a real person that she encounters every day, but one with a certain access to her inner life. He binds everyone in the novel together as this canvas onto which they can project things. One way to absorb lots of Normal Gossip is to be a deaf mute.  

GN: It’s true. There was a very satisfying payoff in seeing all four of these characters project various noble and magical capacities onto Singer’s silence, only for us to read Singer’s letter to Antonapoulos in which he admits that actually these people are all kind of annoying and overwhelming and he can predict exactly what they’re going to say at any given time. I laughed. He is a good and patient man, but human, and he gets sick of everyone’s shtick, too. Even when all of his confessors are in the same room, they can’t even talk to each other, but all address him directly: “their thoughts seemed to converge in him as the spokes of a wheel lead to the center hub.” He is everyone’s source of catharsis. Antonapolous asked a lot of him, but he never asked for all those billable hours. Eventually we realize that these visits to Antonapoulos, his real friend, were the most meaningful parts of Singer’s life, and the main beats of his story.

ASL: It seems like all the other main characters really need to believe that Singer is a superhuman, noble person. The belief, more than the reality, is their lifeline. I know there were mentions of the Bible in passing, but the devotion to Singer feels almost religious. 

MA: Let’s talk about his other two devotees, Jake Blount and Dr. Copeland. Like Mick and Brannon, I think they make an interesting pair. They’re both concerned with political and economic equality, and McCullers pretty clearly invites the comparison when Dr. Copeland gives his speech about Marx at the Christmas party. But then there’s the scene with their confrontation and they’re totally incompatible.   

GN: After they bumped into each other in the hallway I was begging for them to sit down and have a chat. They both see themselves as carriers of an ideology that can save the world, and they both feel that no one else can see what they see. As a result they are both very lonely, to the point that Jake is scrambling to figure out who in the town is scrawling vaguely anti-capitalist graffiti in chalk, and Copeland has rejected his entire family. One is a teetotaler, the other is always drunk, and both are deeply combative. So of course, when they actually do finally talk, they manage to fight for hours—while apparently mostly agreeing on ideology, if not execution—until an ill Copeland passes out from exhaustion.

ASL: I had trouble with both of these characters for that exact reason, Giri. Copeland, especially, went hard on the “if only black people stayed in school we would have equality” rhetoric, which felt very respectability politics. I hate it when people critique fictional characters like they’re real people, but reading his character in the context of having been written by what was considered a very progressive white writer in the 1930s, it’s interesting that this was as far as the critique went. 

KM: I loved the dynamic of the drunk versus the teetotaler, and thought McCullers let them hash it out in a way that did feel realistic to me. Not that realism is necessarily the goal, but by the time they fought I was just so relieved to have the conflict at long-last, that it felt really satisfying, even if the end result was very little. 

GN: He could be very frustrating at times. I thought McCullers was showing us some of the ways that ideology can harden and isolate a person. It could also animate him in kind of amazing ways, too. He treated so many people. But it seems like he’d begun to regret the way his beliefs had warped his personal life—he’d abused his family into leaving him, frightened his son and son-in-law into waiting outside the house during his daughter’s visits, was otherwise alone—and allowed himself to open up again after Willie’s torture in prison.

MA: That’s a good point about his “true purpose.” It drives him to work for his community every day and he considers it the last reason to go “onward” after Willie is tortured. “The sodden heaviness of peace weighted down his limbs so that it was only with the strong, true purpose that he moved.” But the way he thrust it onto his family also made his life smaller. He wants better lives for his people, but the injury of racism has weathered down his sense of what living is. His children know it is those simple pleasures. Having fun and wearing fancy clothes and pursuing the jobs you want. Religion and shared language—two things he dismisses—can actually build community and power. We know some people in the town like him and respect him—they name their children after him (to his dismay, because he doesn’t want them having too many children) and even seem moved by the speech he gives. By the end, though, he and Jake Blount are both these lonely agitators without anyone to take up their call.  

GN: How did you feel about McCullers’s’ ability to write these frenzied calls to action (from Blount) or more considered monologues (from Copeland)? They each spend so much time doing this: describing the ills of the world, persuading other people to join them in the fight, persuading themselves that they were right to sacrifice a life of ordinary commitments. There are so many of these passages, and sometimes I was charmed by a thought experiment or a turn of phrase, but often I thought back to Singer’s line about knowing what they were going to say as soon as they started to say it. It’s kind of a tricky task as a writer. You are depicting these passionate and tedious people, who are bound to repeat themselves—but as a reader you don’t actually want to read the same salvo in so many different ways.

KM: I did find myself bored during some of the Copeland sections, to be honest. You’re right that it’s a tricky space to write, though, and I think the kind of exhaustion with him in particular is intentional. It didn’t bother me to feel exhausted by him, if that makes any sense. He seemed exhausting!

MA: Yeah, I think you’re meant to feel the way Singer probably does, which is that all the deep insights these people imagine they’re spilling to him are not terribly novel. I was impressed with how she managed to distinguish the monologuing though. Each one sounded like the character they were spoken by.

ASL: He’s like the Aaron Sorkin character of the novel who’s always trying to have his moment making the big speech with the swelling music. 

MA: Jake Blount is walking and talking through the New York Café.

DRAB will be in the comments for the next couple of days to hear your thoughts and chat with you. If you missed out on this book, don’t worry! We’ll announce our next pick soon.

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