“Maybe when people longed for a thing that bad the longing made them trust anything that might give it to them.”
Carson McCullers, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter (1940)
It’s hard to believe that Carson McCullers wrote this book at just 23 years old, not just because of her evident talent as a writer but because of her deep understanding of human nature. She moves effortlessly from the musings of an aging black doctor to the adventurous mind of a young girl, and in doing so weaves together the collective voices of the South. To me, it’s what makes McCullers such a compelling writer.
The Heart is a Lonely Hunter begins with the life of deaf mute John Singer and the upheaval caused by his friend and roommate Spiros Antonapoulos’ admittance to an asylum. Feeling lost and alone without his friend, Singer leaves the rooms they shared together and moves into a boarding house. To keep his loneliness at bay, he takes his meals three times a day at the New York Café, which brings him into regular contact with four individuals – a young girl, the café’s owner, a black doctor and an alcoholic- who each become dependent on Singer as their confidante.
For me this book was achingly sad because although each character interacts with Singer and to some degree with each other, they are all painfully alone. Dr Copeland has pushed his family away with his strict and uncompromising beliefs, Jake Blount isolates himself from others through alcoholism and his communist ideals, Mick Kelly prefers to live in the ‘inside room’ of her mind, often feeling out-of-sync with her siblings and parents, and Biff Brannon the café owner is emotionally estranged from his wife. It is only when they speak to Singer that they feel understood. His difficulty in communicating means they project their ideals onto him, desperately latching onto his company, when in reality he doesn’t share their beliefs and never has.
In their desperate longing to find a kindred spirit they have blindly placed their trust in a person who doesn’t exist, and the pretence can only be maintained for so long. A beautiful read.