“Wise Blood”, published in 1952, is a novel partly created from some of O’Connor’s short stories, so anyone who has read her Collected Stories may recognise a few scenes and characters. The protagonist, Hazel Motes, has recently returned from the war in Europe and finds that he has nowhere to go. He heads to a nearby city, it being as good a place as any. He meets a blind preacher and his daughter, Asa and Sabbath Hawks, begging in the streets and becomes inexplicably drawn to them. A strange young man named Enoch Emory, all alone in the world, attaches himself to Hazel. Hawks notices Hazel following them and hands him a bundle of flyers to hand out to people. This tips him over the edge. He throws the flyers to the ground and begins preaching a new truth: that there is no Jesus, no redemption, no sin. He has found the Church Without Christ.
Hazel has been struggling with faith throughout his life. He seems to object to the idea of original sin, that all of us are sinners and Jesus died to redeem us. “If Jesus existed, I wouldn’t be clean”: he rejects the idea that he can only be sinless and spiritually pure by accepting Jesus, even if he has never actually sinned. He is always trying to escape his own deep-seated guilt at his inability to accept Christ. His interest in the blind preacher is a manifestation of this hidden desire to be accept and be saved. Hazel’s own preaching is an attempt to convince himself that Christianity in not the way of truth. Though he constantly pushes people away, he appeals to others because he wants to know that there are others that feel and think as he does. But what he truly wants is peace, and “there’s no peace for the redeemed”. It’s all a bit confused. One thing that could be analysed is the effect that Hazel’s time in the war had on him. It is quite possible that, along with physical wounds, he is also suffering psychologically.
Another character driven by confused desires is Enoch Emery. Though not as major a character as Hazel, it is his compulsion that gives its name to the book. Enoch’s “wise blood”, which he inherited from his daddy, is a sort of animal intuition that guides him. It is a controlling force, but also a source of divine wisdom. It frustrates him at times, especially when he needs to do something or go somewhere, but he never questions the commands it gives him–he has complete faith in it as something grander than himself. It is the wise blood that keeps him connected with Hazel’s story; it is the wise blood that compels him to steal a mummy from a museum and present it to Hazel as “the new Jesus”. In contrast with Hazel, there is no religious strife in Enoch: he is just a lonely man looking for a friend. He seems to have a thing about apes, though, similar to how Hazel feels about Jesus: revulsion mixed with a certain longing.
Despite its grotesque characters, dark atmosphere, and heavy themes, there are moments of absurd humour throughout the novel. Hazel’s car could be considered something of a running gag: despite clearly being a piece of crap, he calls it a good car and has unwavering faith in its ability to take him anywhere. There’s a great moment when he is trying to escape from the con man Hoover Shoats. The car jolts forward or backwards of its own accord, preventing him for driving away and forcing him to simply sleep in the back. Another part involves Hazel and Sabbath both deciding to seduce the other for their own personal gain. The pathetic Enoch also provides much amusement (mixed with pity) in his desperate attempts to make friends in an uncaring world. I suppose the amount of humour you find in this book depends on your tolerance of weird and often disturbing situations.
Recommended for people who enjoy: religious themes, dark humour, oddball characters, the American south.