The Resolution Project Book Forty-One: The Heart is a Lonely Hunter (1940)

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books / the resolution project

“Because in some men it is in them to give up everything personal at some time, before it ferments and poisons – throw it to some human being or some human idea. They have to.” (p. 32-33)

The Resolution Project: For my New Year’s resolution this year (that being 2011), I decided to try and read all one hundred of the novels picked by Time Magazine as the best since their inception in 1923 to the list’s publication in 2005. I exempted myself from reading ones I’ve already read, leaving some eighty-six or so to read before the end of this year. Some spoilers may lie ahead, so be warned if you’re the type to be bothered by that.

The Heart is a Lonely Hunter cover

John Singer is a deaf-mute man living in a mill town in the American South during the Great Depression. After his friend, a fellow deaf-mute named Antonapoulos, is committed to an asylum, Singer somehow becomes the focal point for people in the town to tell all of their sorrows to. They include; Biff Brannon, owner of the New York Cafe and married to a sickly woman; Mick Kelly, a girl from a poor family who is obsessed with one day composing a great symphony; Jake Blount, an alcoholic would-be Communist turned carnival attendant; and Doctor Copeland, an African-American doctor who bemoans the plight of his impoverished people.

This was a pretty solid book, which illustrates the dangers of turning someone you know (or at least think you know) into a sort of Christ-figure who you feel could absolve you of all of your sins. Like many of you, I’d first heard the phrase “the heart is a lonely hunter” from the song by Reba McEntire, who, with the rest of her pop-country ilk, was on the radio any time my father drove somewhere when I was younger. After listening to it again, there isn’t much that the two have in common, other than acknowledging a desperate longing that dwells deep within the bowels of the human soul. For McEntire, this takes the form of a woman seeking out a one-night stand; for McCullers the hunger is more complex.

All of “the people” who talk at Singer (I say at, because you’re never really too sure how much he’s listening, but at least he looks like he is, right?) are basically using him like a psychotherapist performing Freud’s talking cure. Unfortunately, all of their problems are way too big to be solved in this manner, they’ve all got to do with the abject poverty and predation that were omnipresent in the South at this time. The Heart is a Lonely Hunter is a good companion piece to The Grapes of Wrath in this way, approaching the grand themes of that novel, but in a somehow gentler way. I must say that the Time 100 list is definitely well stocked with tales of Southern tragedy; in fact that’s probably the biggest theme to be found on the list in my reading so far. If the intention of the list’s creators is to make me feel sympathy for Southern people down on their luck, consider that accomplished, I guess, but it’s starting to get a little old to me.

McCullers also has a lot to say about how human beings perceive people, as well as how time erodes the rough edges off of the things we like. Hunter shows us how we put a lot of stock in other people, and how when they don’t meet up to our expectations the results can be devastating. The mute is no exception to this, as we the reader are privy to his own need to expound on the thing he loves, namely the mentally unsound Greek man who was his best friend:

“This was the friend to whom he told all that was in his heart. This was the Antonapoulos who no one knew was wise but him. As the year passed his friend seemed to grow larger in mind, and his face looked out in a very grave and subtle way from the darkness at night.” (p. 204)

That’s all I’ve got to say about this one, really. It was good, but parts of it were a little familiar at this point in the game. Down below, you’ll notice I’ve changed the numbering scheme I’m using for the list. I’ve decided to tackle the entirety of Anthony Powell’s epic A Dance to the Music of Time “dodecahedral masterpiece”, and so the number below reflects that, as well as my having finished the Lord of the Rings books when I was younger. They were okay, but I really have no desire to ever go back to Tolkien ever again. I’ll gladly up my number though 🙂

“That is the way they talk when they come to my room. Those words in their heart do not let them rest, so they are always very busy.” (p. 216)

Who would I recommend this book to?: People who want to explore how human beings interact with each other in reality and in our own heads. People who are not sick of reading books about Southerners who are sad.

Total pages read since January 1st: 13604 pp.

Total books on the Time 100 list read: 48/113, or 42% complete.

Next up on the Resolution Project: A Handful of Dust (1934) by Evelyn Waugh

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The Author

Matt Bowes is a self-proclaimed cultural commentator/arbiter of good taste from Edmonton, Alberta. He enjoys movies and books, and writes about them sometimes at thisnerdinglife.com.

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