Not That Kind of Girl

Carlene Bauer does not care for the new biography of Flannery O’ Connor by Brad Gooch:

Aquinas is described as having “lofty, lucent prose” — which is like saying Plato has a learned, witty style. And he is easily beguiled by trivia. In order to show how protected a child O’Connor was, he takes a paragraph to describe the crib she slept in — a model called the Kiddie-Koop — and then tries to wring some greater significance out of it: “the brand name,” he writes, “too neatly predicting her identification with fowl as her friends.” Too neatly, indeed.

But she feels more kindly toward O’Connor herself, as do I. Too kindly, perhaps; highlighted in Bauer’s review and buried in Joy Williams’ New York Times review — more of a book report as prose poem than a work of criticism — is the fact of O’Connor’s racism. But, writes Bauer,

if there is a reason to revere her as one might a saint — she was livid when Robert Lowell, during his first manic episode, tried to tell people that she was one — it is because she offers true spiritual wisdom alongside an ongoing tussle between sass and submission. She did not flagellate herself with self-seriousness; she did not stop making jokes because Jesus didn’t tell any. That she was both so funny and so faithful seems a miracle, because so many Christians still have not realized that, as she wrote, “the maximum amount of seriousness admits the maximum amount of comedy”.

I’m bringing Bauer’s review to your attention not just because Flannery O’Connor, racist sins and all, looms large over Killing the Buddha, but because I’ve just read Bauer’s forthcoming book, which is also possessed of the deep seriousness and comedy one often finds in the work of Christian writers at odds with but still drawn toward their tradition. Bauer sent it to me for a blurb, and although I thought I’d be able to come up with something after an hour or two of skimming — that’s the dirty truth of blurbing — I ended up reading every word. This is what I sent her:

Not That Kind of Girl is a vigorously observed book about sex, God, and reading, by a tremendously talented writer who knows that none of those words–“sex,” “God,” or “reading”–leads to the kind of tidy conclusions that have come to make memoir a disreputable genre. Carlene Bauer’s autobiography–one of the most truthful, intelligent, and engrossing I’ve read in years–redeems the form. This Christ-haunted confession of a “good girl” who goes to New York may become a generation’s definitive account of books and the city.

Worth noting that Bauer’s review appears in an interesting new book review webzine called The Second Pass, which draws on some major critical talent and doesn’t limit itself to the next big thing in publishing.

Jeff Sharlet is a founding editor of Killing the Buddha, coauthor with Peter Manseau of Killing the Buddha: A Heretic's Bible (2004) and co-editor of Believer, Beware (2009). Sharlet is also the author of Sweet Heaven When I Die, (2011), C Street, (2010), and the New York Times bestseller The Family (2008).