I will get to The Heart is a Lonely Hunter in a moment. By way of introduction, I’ll return to one of my most vivid memories of university – my Shakespeare tutor telling me that the great man wasn’t actually saying anything. There was no point, no position, no argument, that didn’t have its black and white expertly shaded away to grey. At the time, of course, there were many who saw life in more straightforward terms. Margaret Thatcher was prime minister, busy pouring scorn on compromise and consensus. At the other end of the scale, there was the student who knocked on my door one evening, inviting me to stand up to Thatcher by joining the miners on frankly hazardous 1980s picket lines. I might have annoyed my caller by pointing out possible pernickety complications. On the one hand you had all those people losing their jobs, their lives upended, wider ripples devastating whole communities that relied indirectly on the mines for their livelihood. On the other hand, there was the beginning of a shift away from coal, Michael Heseltine appearing on the news to describe his efforts to find new markets for British coal, running up against the fact that those markets were shrinking. Anyway, not knowing what the answer was, it seemed unlikely that I would have been much good to the miners, especially in the police baton charges.
I might have had David Bowie playing in my room as I worked on essays, maybe listening to All the Young Dudes, where the singer gives up on that ‘revolution stuff’ because it has too many snags.
These memories of studying English at Warwick University in the 1980s, came back to me whilst reading The Heart is a Lonely Hunter. The debut novel of Carsen McCullers, set in the American south, was a huge success when it first appeared in 1940, and has remained highly regarded ever since. The central character is a deaf-mute called Singer, a calm, generous man, who after losing a long term deaf-mute friend to mental illness, becomes a confidante of a number of people who live in his small town. The kindly owner of an all-night cafe, an embittered labour agitator, an adolescent girl with a talent for music but no money to develop it, and a doctor, with a burning sense of injustice at the treatment of black people – they all come to Mr Singer and unburden themselves. This group are on the receiving end of an iniquitous society. They are poor, suffer cruel discrimination, or both. They make efforts to improve their situation, and in some cases argue bitterly about how this should be done. There are snags at every turn.
Mr Singer, as a mute, becomes a kind of blank canvas on which frustrated people paint any picture they like. He seems to agree with those who want social change achieved gradually. He appears to support those who argue for much more direct action. He is understanding of those who are more interested in music than saving society. He is sympathetic towards the desire to direct kindness in a small, but real way to people who come into a late-night cafe. All the while, Singer remains a silent friend to everyone. In this sense, Singer actually reminded me of the Shakespeare I read at Warwick.
Maybe Singer says nothing, but his name suggests that he not only has a voice, he has a melodious voice, maybe even capable of singing a massive, crossover hit, enjoyed by dudes young, old, radical, easy going and anything in-between. The Heart is a Lonely Hunter is a fascinating, funny, moving, sometimes shocking book, exploring writing and its relationship with people’s endless struggle to improve their lives. You might say it belongs to that category of a book which offers friendship to any reader.