"In the town there were two mutes, and they were always together. Early every morning they would come out from the house where they lived and walk arm in arm down the street to work. The two friends were very different. The one who always steered the way was an obese and dreamy Greek. In the summer he would come out wearing a yellow or green polo shirt stuffed sloppily into his trousers in front and hanging out loosely behind. When it was colder he wore over this a shapeless gray sweater. His face was round and oily, with half-closed eyelids and lips that curved in a gentle, stupid smile. The other mute was tall. His eyes had a quick intelligent expression. He was always immaculate and very soberly dressed." (Carson McCullers, The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter)
I cannot look at this beginning fresh, as you might, of course because I have now read the whole book, but also because I saw the film prior to reading the book, nearly 20 years ago now and its images are indelibly stamped in my memory.
But it's not difficult to see how this beginning paragraph might draw you in, just a little further, you might say, just to see who these odd men are and what their story might be --- and then you're in until the end. At least I was.
The description of these men, and their contrast, is compelling. Not riveting, but intriguing. Carson McCullers was only 23 when she published this novel, her first, and she became an overnight literary sensation. She makes you feel what her characters feel, and you have compassion on them, and yet it is not a bright story but one of ultimate sadness, of people traveling down dead in roads with no resolution in their lives. But then, this is not about endings, but beginnings.
And about McCullers: She had a sad and tragic life, suffering many strokes, depression, and much angst from she and her husband's homosexuality, and yet through it all she wrote. Actor John Huston described her well: "I first met Carson McCullers during the war when I was visiting Paulette Goddard and Burgess Meredith in upstate New York. Carson lived nearby, and one day when Buzz and I were out for a walk she hailed us from her doorway. She was then in her early twenties, and had already suffered the first of series of strokes. I remember her as a fragile thing with great shining eyes, and a tremor in her hand as she placed it in mine. It wasn't palsy, rather a quiver of animal timidity. But there was nothing timid or frail about the manner in which Carson McCullers faced life. And as her afflictions multiplied, she only grew stronger."
McCullers could write so well of lonely, isolated people because she herself was lonely. She said that "I live with the people I create and it has always made my essential loneliness less keen." It makes you wonder what went wrong in her beginnings.