The Partridge Festival by Flannery O’Connor, 1961
The magic trick:
Building something akin to a demented romantic comedy
Silly me, reading this story as I did in hopes of disconnecting from our troubled times for a few pleasant minutes.
What was I thinking? It is Flannery O’Connor, after all.
So yeah, it’s a story about a small town going forward with its annual flower festival even after one of its citizens just shot and killed five people at the town courthouse the week prior.
But here’s the thing: it kind of is fun. It really is an exceptionally funny story; maybe the funniest story of hers I’ve read. There is so much derision here; she barely even pretends to try extending the story’s value beyond pure satire. Which is just fine with me.
We meet two young adults, both obsessed with Singleton, the man behind this tragic shooting. They sympathize with him. They feel they understand him. They believe that he was simply expressing the same rage they feel for society.
So the scene, when this couple meets each other and realizes for the first time their shared interests, really is magical. You can almost sense O’Connor’s excitement and energy in the writing, as if she knows she’s stumbled upon something electric.
And that’s quite a trick on O’Connor’s part.
When the meal was over and they were on the way to the beauty contest, they continued to say nothing to each other. The girl, who was several inches taller than he, walked slightly in advance of him as if she would like to lose him on the way, but after two blocks she stopped abruptly and began to rummage in a large grass bag she carried. She took out a pencil and held it between her teeth while
she continued to rummage. After a minute she brought up from the bottom of the bag two tickets and a stenographer’s note pad. With these out, she closed the pocketbook and walked on.
“Are you going to take notes?” Calhoun inquired in a tone heavy with irony.
The girl looked around as if trying to identify the speaker. “Yes,” she said, “I’m going to take notes.”
“You appreciate this sort of thing?” Calhoun asked in the same tone. “You enjoy it?”
“It makes me vomit,” she said, “I’m going to finish it off with one swift literary kick.”
The boy looked at her blankly.
“Don’t let me interfere with your pleasure in it,” she said, “but this whole place is false and rotten to the core.” Her voice came with a hiss of indignation. “They prostitute azaleas!”
Calhoun was astounded.
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