Magazine | June 22, 2009, Issue

The Other O’Connor

The O’Connor everyone remembers is Flannery, who wrote herself into the history of American literature by looking at the poor white Protestants of her native Georgia through the X-ray glasses of Roman Catholic dogma. But there was another Catholic novelist named O’Connor at work in the Fifties and Sixties, and for a time he was both better known and vastly more popular. 

Edwin O’Connor first rang the gong of success with The Last Hurrah, a 1956 novel about an aging Boston politician that added a phrase to the English language and made the man who coined it rich and famous. Like Flannery, Edwin O’Connor was a devout, wholly orthodox Catholic. He was a daily communicant who stuck close to home, settling in Boston and writing about the people he saw there every day. But unlike the prickly author of Wise Blood and A Good Man Is Hard to Find, the other O’Connor, who died in 1968, had the gift of immediate accessibility, and readers in every corner of the land reveled in his stories of Irish-American life in mid-century New England. The Edge of Sadness, his 1961 tale of an alcoholic priest, was chosen by the Book-of-the-Month Club, condensed by Reader’s Digest, and awarded a Pulitzer Prize. Not surprisingly, it was also one of the top ten bestsellers of the year, sharing the list with, among others, To Kill a Mockingbird.

Such popularity is not easily forgiven in certain cultural circles. Edmund Wilson, who knew O’Connor and admired him greatly, observed apropos of The Edge of Sadness that “a literary intellectual objects to nothing so much as a bestselling book that also possesses real merit.” Small wonder that the book in question, like its author, is now all but forgotten, though it surfaced briefly four years ago as part of the Loyola Classics line of 20th-century Catholic fiction. Not a single print-media reviewer took note of its reissue. Yet The Edge of Sadness is more than a faded snapshot of Irish-American culture on the eve of Vatican II. It is, in fact, a middlebrow masterpiece, a piercingly poignant study of loss and redemption that is one of the most underrated American novels of the post-war era.

Hugh Kennedy, the narrator of The Edge of Sadness, is a 55-year-old priest from a city not unlike Boston who has just climbed back up from the end of his rope. Sent into an emotional tailspin by the death of his beloved father, he takes to drink and is sent to an Arizona retreat for wayward priests, there to grapple with a spiritual emptiness that has left him vulnerable to depression.

At length a chastened Father Kennedy returns to his hometown, this time to a Spanish-speaking parish that is nothing like the close-knit community where he grew up: “The church itself is the perfect mirror of the district: once, three generations ago, active, prosperous, in a way even noble; today, a derelict, full of dust and flaking paint and muttering, homeless, vague-eyed men. . . . In a sense it is hardly a parish at all anymore, but a kind of spiritual waterhole: a halting place for transients in despair.”

All this, however, we learn not at the beginning of The Edge of Sadness but later on. The self-effacing Father Kennedy starts off by informing the reader that the story we are about to hear is not about him: “I am in it — good heavens, I’m in it to the point of almost never being out of it! — but the story belongs, all of it, to the Carmodys, and my own part, while substantial enough, was never really of any great significance at all.” The Carmodys are a well-to-do family that Father Kennedy knew and loved as a boy and whose irascible octogenarian patriarch takes a renewed interest in him after he returns to Boston to pick up the pieces of his life. Charlie Carmody and his children, each one representing a different facet of the immigrant experience, are drawn with striking vividness and sympathy, so much so that it is not until well into The Edge of Sadness that we realize that the author has contrived to throw us off the scent: His real subject, it turns out, is not the Carmodys but Father Kennedy’s painful journey from the slough of despond to the brink of renewal.

This deft bit of sleight-of-hand allows O’Connor to launch the novel by revisiting the same ethnic environs that he had already portrayed so affectionately in The Last Hurrah. In addition to the Carmodys, we meet a gallery of other Irish-American types who fill the book’s pages with “the talk of old men and old women for whom the simple business of talking had always been the one great recreation.” Their leisurely yarns of days gone by are as engaging to the reader as they are to Father Kennedy, who longs above all things to come home again: “I suppose it’s the mark of the provincial man, but in any case I find that I have a special and lasting love for this place, which is so obviously just a place, which has no particular beauty or grace or grandeur of scene, but which is, quite simply, a neighborhood, my neighborhood, a compound of sights and smells and sounds that have furnished all my years.”

But O’Connor casts a colder eye on the Boston Irish in The Edge of Sadness than in The Last Hurrah, showing us how the fight for survival in a strange land turned Charlie Carmody into a flint-hearted businessman who in turn has alienated his children, each of whom bears the scars of inherited unhappiness. And though Father Kennedy delights in the stage-Irish charm of the Carmodys and their friends, he knows that their back-porch chat cannot fill the holes in his own soul.

In The Living Novel, V. S. Pritchett praised those novelists “who are not driven back by life, who are not shattered by the discovery that it is a thing bounded by unsought limits, by interests as well as by hopes, and that it ripens under restriction. Such writers accept. They think that acceptance is the duty of a man.” Pritchett was talking about Walter Scott, but he could just as well have had The Edge of Sadness in mind, for it is above all a story of acceptance, a portrait of a group of men and women who find themselves forced at last to face the fact that their dreams will not come true.

This revelation is no less apparent to the Carmody children than it is to Father Kennedy, who sees it in the careworn face of Helen, the companion of his childhood, who escaped from her father’s daily cruelties into a tepid, loveless marriage: “Nothing about her suggested the tragic figure, she didn’t radiate mournfulness — far from that, but all the same I knew at once some element of happiness was missing. The edge of sadness was visible; it was clear that she hadn’t found . . . what? What we all hoped to find, I suppose: at one time or another we’re all optimists.”

On the other hand, Helen has succeeded in coming to terms with the limitations of her existence, finding fulfillment in her son and grandchildren, and Father Kennedy in turn finds an even more consequential fulfillment in the destiny that he chooses for himself at novel’s end. Instead of returning to the Carmodys’ parish, he opts to stay at Old St. Paul’s, the decaying inner-city church to which he was assigned after returning from Arizona, and to spend his last years doing what he can to coax it back to life. He does so, however, in the knowledge that Old St. Paul’s will never be again as it was. All pretense is gone, and with it the illusions born of youthful ignorance; what is left is reality, hard and unsparing.

Yet the closing pages of The Edge of Sadness are also suffused with the warm glow of possibility, and never for a moment does it have the factitious feel of a confidence trick played by a bestselling author determined to send his audience home happy. For even though Father Kennedy continues to believe in “the essential goodness of man,” he also knows that “only a fool can look around him and smile serenely in unwatered optimism.” He knows, too, that the spiritual dryness that came close to destroying him can be held at bay only if he immerses himself in the daily life of his shabby parish, trading the easy familiarity of his old existence for the awareness that “while something was over forever, something else had just begun — and that if the new might not seem the equal of the old, that might be because the two were not to be compared . . . that something might be ahead that grew out of the past, yes, but was totally different, with its own labors and rewards, that it might be deeper and fuller and more meaningful than anything in the past.”

After The Edge of Sadness, Edwin O’Connor published only one more full-scale novel, All in the Family, which was as popular and artistically successful as its predecessors. But the pace of change in America had sped up between 1961 and 1966, and a new generation of critics who had cut their teeth on high modernism now found little to like in an unselfconsciously old-fashioned storyteller who worshipped the gods of directness and simplicity. Two years after he died, Edmund Wilson and Arthur Schlesinger put together The Best and the Last of Edwin O’Connor, a well-meant anthology that sought in vain to keep his memory green. Denis Donoghue, who wrote about it in The New York Review of Books, declared that O’Connor’s oeuvre was “a public success but still, in the artistic sense, incomplete, his possibilities unfulfilled.”

Perhaps — but to read The Edge of Sadness today is to doubt the finality of that reasonable-sounding judgment. I thought it was an extraordinarily fine book when I first read it a quarter century ago, and now that I am almost as old as Father Hugh Kennedy, I think it better still. Few American novels have done a more honest job of telling how it feels for a man to come to the middle of life’s journey, and even fewer have the power to fill their readers with a sense of hope strong enough to be felt not merely in the bright light of day but in the middle of the dark night of the soul.

– Mr. Teachout, drama critic of the Wall Street Journal and chief culture critic of Commentary, wrote the libretto for The Letter, an opera by Paul Moravec that will be premiered by the Santa Fe Opera on July 25.

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