Mini Review: Wise Blood by Flannery O’Connor

About mini reviews:

Maybe you’re not an audio book person, or maybe you are. I provide mini reviews of audio books and give a recommendation on the format. Was this book improved by a voice actor? Would a physical copy have been better? Perhaps they complement each other? Read on. . .

Wise Blood was Flannery O’Connor’s first novella. Generally, she was better known as a bird lover, cartoonist, and short story writer. Here, we get the story of Hazel Motes, a young man whose mother and preacher father are deceased. Hazel was sent to war where he was injured, leaving shrapnel in his chest. For his service, he receives a government check, but what does he do with his life now that he doesn’t need a job? Deciding that Christ and penitence only keep people miserable, and that the Truth is what will set hearts free, he purchases a rickety car (seriously, the door is tied on) and begins to preach a “new church” from the car’s roof: the Church Without Christ.

While Hazel is the main character, a handful of memorable secondary characters get space in this novella, and voice narrator Bronson Pinchot brings them all to life beautifully. I wondered what made Pinchot so very good at his audio work and found an article in which he discusses his beliefs about people deserving the same enthralling experience that readers with the book have. He explains:

I decided early on that I should not “read” the book but “be” the book, the way I imagine Homer, in performance, “was” the Odyssey. We know he wasn’t “reading” it.

from a 2014 Vulture article

Thus, each character sounds different, like performative expression of their personality. I can’t imagine how flat Wise Blood might “sound” if I had read the paperback version. In fact, the beginning of the book from the 10th anniversary edition has a note from O’Connor, pointing out that she had intended Wise Blood to be funny. I’m not sure it would be on the page, but Pichot gives the sentences careful inflection; he can read the word “no” in so many different ways.

O’Connor’s novels often feel directionless to me, meaning I have no idea where in a plot arc I am, but each scene is interesting and rich. Wise Blood does conclude Hazel’s story, and he experiences conflict throughout, but some readers may be left feeling dissatisfied. I was more like a person on a roller coaster unaware of where the end was yet smiling on the loop-the-loops anyway.

I recommend the audio copy over the physical book for the way Pinchot performs a gumpy boy, a nymphomaniac, and a slippery street preacher. Just go with the ride and enjoy each scene, no matter how weird, preachy, violent, or silly it is.

21 comments

  1. You ask ‘is the book improved by the voice actor?’ I find listening to an expressive reader very enjoyable. But I have no problem imagining voices when I’m reading, so I’m not sure the reader improves a book, though they can surely destroy one.

    I like that quote of Pinchot’s. Obviously he has thought about his craft and the oral tradition (though I don’t think the Odyssey has any dialogue – that was a drama thing).

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    • With O’Connor’s books, her characters are SO southern U.S., and SO very weird, that I think someone who can pull off those voices changes the way we “hear” each character. But those buzzy speakers….I hate it when I’m driving and have to turn the volume up and down repeatedly.

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  2. I haven’t heard of Bronson Pinchot before- I’ll have to look out for him! I’m still relatively new to audio and if a book doesn’t have a great narrator I’m kind of hopeless. Great review!

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    • One of the most popular audiobook narrators, whom I cannot stand, is Bernadette Dunn. She does this strange witchy voice for all of her books, and it doesn’t matter how old the character is — 16, 24, in her 80s. My library’s Libby app lets you listen to a sample before you borrow, and that’s all I need to make a decision with an audiobook.

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      • Me too! I really like Ray Porter- his voice is very soothing to me. And I think Emily Wu Zeller is a good female voice. I haven’t encountered Bernadette yet- or maybe I have and noped it. Lol!

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      • I’m reading her letters, and I feel like she has a sense of humour (even somewhat goofy side to her), so it seems like this might appeal to her for the strange-ness of it all. I’m planning to at least peek into that bio when I’m done with the letters…

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  3. Great review! I actually didn’t know this was her first novella. And I LOVE that quote from Pinchot about “being” the book rather than reading it… I do kind of picture Homer as Odysseus!

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    • Injured veterans still get disability pay in the U.S., tax free. Whether it’s good money, or even something one can live on, I don’t know, but Hazel Motes spending his money on almost nothing, so everything he had was excess beyond his room and board.

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    • I can see why someone would give it three stars. It has these wonderful, vivid moments, but there doesn’t appear to be a satisfactory arc for your average reader, which is why I know some day I’ll look back and think, “I know I read Wise Blood, but what the heck was it about?”

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