I’ve finished my book for the November/December Classics Club Spin, The Ballad of the Sad Cafe by Carson McCullers. Whew! For a rather short work, this one really delivers quite an impact.
The Ballad of the Sad Cafe was my first foray into the works of Carson McCullers. A mainstay of Southern Gothic literature, linked in that regard with the likes of William Faulkner, Flannery O’Connor, Tennessee Williams, Harper Lee, etc., I knew I appreciated this style but had never sampled McCullers’s contributions. I had heard a lot of rhapsodizing about her prose and characterization, so I went into this reading with high expectations. Thankfully, I was not disappointed.
I don’t normally like to summarize a book’s plot, but I don’t know of any other way to open discussion of this particular work. So here goes: The Ballad of the Sad Cafe tells the story of an unusual set of events in a small Georgia town best known for its cotton mill and its having “nothing whatsoever to do.” Miss Amelia Evans, a physically imposing (over 6 feet tall) unconventional woman is at the hub of the narrative and the town, where she runs a small supply store (the only one around and thus essential) and operates a still that produces “the best liquor in the county,” as well as functioning as the town’s only “doctor.” (Er…The still isn’t the “doctor”; Amelia is. Although that sure would be one brainy and useful still, eh? Bah! Grammar awkward.) Miss Amelia is known for being taciturn, skillful, shrewd in business, strong-bodied and strong-willed. Most of the folks in the town owe her money and are inclined to gossip about her, as she “cared nothing for the love of men and was a solitary person.” Some years before, the town scoundrel, the handsome yet unscrupulous Marvin Macy – known for petty crime and having “degraded and shamed” several girls in the area – fell unexpectedly and wholly in love with Miss Amelia. He gave up his trouble-making ways, adopted manners, started attending church, saved his money, and finally presented himself to Miss Amelia, proposing marriage. Not genuinely interested but consistently pestered by her great aunt about finding a husband, Amelia agreed. The marriage lasted but ten days, as Miss Amelia was completely disinterested in having a physical relationship with her new husband. Frustrated and dejected, Macy left town, reverted to his old ways and was soon arrested for a string of burglaries and assaults. (It’s all quite melodramatic, isn’t it?)
Fast forward to the present: One evening, as a group of mill workers and Miss Amelia gather drinking and talking around the porch of her store, a figure can be seen walking up the road. This stranger, a hunchback and “scarcely more than four feet tall” is Cousin Lymon, hitherto-unknown distant kin to Miss Amelia. As others have come to town with stories of being related to Amelia in hopes of procuring some of her hoarded wealth, the townsfolk expect her to send him packing, but to everyone’s surprise she takes him into her home, and the two develop a close, if difficult to categorize relationship. Rumors fly as the gossip-mongers have a field day, but Cousin Lymon eventually manages to ingratiate himself into the hearts of many locals, despite their distrust of anyone “different,” and Miss Amelia starts to loosen up, becoming somewhat less standoffish and more content. Eventually she and Cousin Lymon transform the front room of the store into a cafe where townsfolk meet for dinner and drink and camaraderie every Sunday evening. Things seem to be going well…until Marvin Macy is released from prison and returns to town, hell-bent on revenge…
The resulting drama is both eloquently-drawn and deeply sad, even as it holds threads of dark humor. To give any real details of the rest of the story (What I detailed above is really just the set-up and backstory for the main event.) would be to completely spoil the thing. I will only say that this powerful little tale gut-punched me, producing a profound sense of betrayal and loss in me on behalf of Miss Amelia. I was absolutely not expecting things to turn out as they did and was completely blind-sided by McCullers “lead fist in a velvet glove” approach. The author looks so…sweet in old photos, so unthreatening, but I tell you truly: this lady was a beast, a behemoth with that pen-knife of hers! Her prose is deceptive, lulling the reader into a sense of ease, like everything might just be ok for these misfits after all. Oh, you sneaky manipulative genius author, Ms. McCullers!
McCullers herself led an unconventional life full of complicated relationships. Both she and her husband were (at first not so openly but eventually openly) bi-sexual, and the skirting of taboos often went hand-in-hand with themes of unrequited love, loneliness and loss in her works. The Ballad of the Sad Cafe was dedicated to the American composer David Diamond, with whom both Carson and her husband engaged in love affairs, forming a famously stormy and complex love triangle. Of course, in 1940s America this flew in the face of convention, but McCullers marched to the beat of her own drummer. In her work, she was incredibly savvy regarding the quirks and crevices of the human heart, and she was able to beautifully and poignantly convey this in her prose. A representative passage from The Ballad of the Sad Cafe that gets right to the core of the story:
“First of all, love is a joint experience between two persons — but the fact that it is a joint experience does not mean that it is a similar experience to the two people involved. There are the lover and the beloved, but these two come from different countries. Often the beloved is only a stimulus for all the stored-up love which had lain quiet within the lover for a long time hitherto. And somehow every lover knows this. He feels in his soul that his love is a solitary thing. He comes to know a new, strange loneliness and it is this knowledge which makes him suffer. So there is only one thing for the lover to do. He must house his love within himself as best he can; he must create for himself a whole new inward world — a world intense and strange, complete in himself. Let it be added here that this lover about whom we speak need not necessarily be a young man saving for a wedding ring — this lover can be man, woman, child, or indeed any human creature on this earth.
Now, the beloved can also be of any description. The most outlandish people can be the stimulus for love. A man may be a doddering great-grandfather and still love only a strange girl he saw in the streets of Cheehaw one afternoon two decades past. The preacher may love a fallen woman. The beloved may be treacherous, greasy-headed, and given to evil habits. Yes, and the lover may see this as clearly as anyone else — but that does not affect the evolution of his love one whit. A most mediocre person can be the object of a love which is wild, extravagant, and beautiful as the poison lilies of the swamp. A good man may be the stimulus for a love both violent and debased, or a jabbering madman may bring about in the soul of someone a tender and simple idyll. Therefore, the value and quality of any love is determined solely by the lover himself.
It is for this reason that most of us would rather love than be loved. Almost everyone wants to be the lover. And the curt truth is that, in a deep secret way, the state of being beloved is intolerable to many. The beloved fears and hates the lover, and with the best of reasons. For the lover is forever trying to strip bare his beloved. The lover craves any possible relation with the beloved, even if this experience can cause him only pain.”
Carson McCullers was a true storyteller, spinning deeply affecting yarns with characters who fairly leap from the page. I will definitely be reading more of her work in future.
(In the language of the internet, if Carson McCullers were a meme, I think she’d be the honey badger, because she looks almost cuddly but her writing was fierce, and in her personal life, as far as society’s demands were concerned, Carson “Honey Badger” McCullers just didn’t give a damn.)