I think things are headed towards Spring. That sounds crazy after last week’s snow storm, but Saturday the sun was pouring down like paint over the Sherwin Williams globe and there was a warmth in the light I hadn’t felt since September. The sunlight is life here in the Deep South and it’s a birthright we’ve come to expect like warm food and good stories. There’s a lot about this land that’s cringe-inducing but not our warmth and not our stories. Like the land, they are strong and good and so linked to this place that many could not have appeared anywhere else on earth. It takes a Southerner to sculpt some of these tales.
The light and heat are characters inside Carson McCuller’s Ballad of the Sad Cafe. The setting is a Georgia summer and if you read it, you’ll fall under the story’s spell and start pulling at the side of your collar to let in a little cool air. There was none in Georgia, not during those summers before air-conditioning when people woke up sweating and laid themselves down to sleep on damp, wrinkled sheets at night, half way to dehydration. The heat is an omnipresent character, an enhancer of the scenes and it helps drive the conflict in this wonderful tale of uneven love.
The characters are as odd a triangle as literature has fashioned. There is Miss Amelia, an ungainly and raw-boned woman more at home with overalls, moonshine and animals than people and as mean-spirited and invulnerable an individual as anyone in the little town could describe until she meets Cousin Lymon. A deformed and strange little man, Lymon sparks no feelings of friendship and is almost certainly a liar but he’s is taken in by Amelia and his presence transforms her character. Although no more at ease around people, Amelia softens her sharp business practices and even turns part of her store into the cafe in the evening, all because it entertains Cousin Lymon. She becomes a nicer person and the town is a better place for it. This good feeling is shattered by the return of Marvin Macy, a cruel, vicious man whose one attempt at good behavior was caused by (you guessed it!) his love that Amelia spurned. For some reason, Lymon gives the same unquestioning adoration to Marvin Macy that Amelia gives to him. With allegiance of Cousin Lymon, Macy finally has the weapon to strike back at the woman he once loved.
It’s not surprising this strange tale comes from Carson McCullers. She was a woman who always felt “set apart” from the rest and she had begun to endure a series of life-altering health problems and romantic disasters by her early thirties, when she wrote this tale. Although sometimes uncomfortable in her own skin, Carson had an incredible empathy for her characters that shows in her writing and you find yourself caring for Amelia and seeing at least some of the charm Cousin Lymon holds for her. Carson was able to endow her characters with love and humanity that we start to care for these deformed and scarred people who are, whatever their shortcomings, all helpless in the face of the person they love because, in the end, that’s a feeling we’ve all known.
I’m not sure how much joy Ms. McCullers got from her life: she was far too young when she died, she spent too much of her last years impaired by a series of strokes and her writing shows a mind deeply familiar with the pain of loneliness. But along with all that, she had a rare capacity for love and understanding that brought her deep happiness and the gratitude of many people. And, as she pointed out, most people prefer giving love to receiving it if they are given the choice. That kind of love still grows deep around here. You can feel its warmth, like the heat in the light.