Book #5: The Ballad of the Sad Cafe by Carson McCullers

Does a novella count as a book in this 50 books thing? I say if Carson McCullers wrote it, it should count. She could pack more into 55 pages than almost any other author I’ve ever read. Squarely placed in the Southern Grotesque, McCullers should be classified with the likes of Faulkner and O’Connor. Although perhaps less frequently read and appreciated, I’m smitten with McCullers.

When I was writing my Literature thesis at UNCA, my advisor suggested that I read this novella at least once a week. Looking back on my work within the tradition of the American grotesque, I totally should have read The Ballad of the Sad Cafe. When Cousin Lyman comes trudging into the small, rural town in which the story is set, I smiled at his (and Miss Amelia’s) tangible grotesque-ness.

There are three main characters: Miss Amelia, Cousin Lyman, and Marvin Macy. Miss Amelia owns and lives in the only store in the small town, and she distills liquor in the swamp behind her home. She’s tall, gangly, and sinewy, with crossed eyes and a disregard for the traditional roles of a woman. She’s entirely self-sufficient; the whole town looks to her on the first cold day of the winter to see if she’s going to slaughter her pig. When she does, they all follow suit.

Cousin Lyman’s entrance into the town is absolutely an exemplary moment of the Southern Grotesque. Cousin Lyman is unnaturally short, hunchbacked, with a large head and shriveled limbs. I won’t quote the scene for you (because it’s better just to read it), but I know I’ll never forget the image of Cousin Lyman hulking down the road toward Miss Amelia’s house. In less than a page, McCullers is able to bring the reader into her imagined world completely. Surrounded by the lush humidity of a summer night in the Deep South, flooded with detail about the “lavender crepe circles” under Lyman’s eyes, the strange characters and events in The Ballad of the Sad Cafe become plausible, despite the obvious absurdity of the larger-than-life characters.

What I love about the grotesque is the literal interpretation of the character’s internal lives. Cousin Lyman’s hunchback is affixed clearly to his back to remind us that he carries emotional baggage and strife. The weather after Marvin Macy returns from prison turns unseasonably warm, causing everyone’s sausage to spoil. I think I like to imagine a world where an evil person would carry an aura of palpable danger. Where a woman with “long, sinewy fingers” would wear a “peculiar red dress that hung awkwardly around her knees” rather than her usual overalls when she felt insecure, a place where the smell emanating from the nearby swamp could correctly identify the mood of the day to come. Is it so crazy that I think the South is pretty close to that? I don’t think McCullers was exaggerating all that much. Like Flannery O’Connor said,

“Whenever I’m asked why Southern writers particularly have a penchant for writing about freaks, I say it is because we are still able to recognize one.”

The list so far:

1. In One Person by John Irving

2. Mathilda Savitch by Victor Lodato

3. At Home: A Short History of Private Life by Bill Bryson

4. Blood, Bones, and Butter by Gabrielle Hamilton

5. The Ballad of the Sad Cafe by Carson McCullers

4 thoughts on “Book #5: The Ballad of the Sad Cafe by Carson McCullers

  1. I LOVE McCullers. I read The Member of the Wedding a few years ago, and I’ve just finished The Heart is a Lonely Hunter. She is remarkable. You’ve made me want to try The Ballad of the Sad Cafe!

  2. Pingback: Book #6: Her Fearful Symmetry by Audrey Niffenegger | serendipitous

  3. Pingback: Book #7 God Bless You, Dr. Kevorkian by Kurt Vonnegut | serendipitous

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