Every time I glanced at the title of this fantastic book my distracted mind would drift into the melody of Thievery Corporation’s catchy song of the same name. Despite the fun I had with the book’s title, the liberating lyrics of the Thievery Corp. song have nothing to do with the somber themes in Carson McCullers’ masterful novel that explores the subject matter of several characters living with poverty and the societal struggle inherent in a pre-second world war working-class southern town.
This is a book that does so many things right that it surely was an instant classic as soon as it was released because it persists as a meaningful and engaging book nearly 75 years after its original publication. In many ways, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter is like a Faulkner book that explores themes of southern society’s decline by shifting through multiple narrative voices, however unlike a Faulkner book, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter is a fairly easy read with a very straightforward and digestible narrative voice that does not indulge in Faulkner’s overly confusing use of metaphorical entendre and stream of consciousness. I’d argue that The Heart is a Lonely Hunter succeeds in many ways that a Faulkner book does not because The Heart is a Lonely Hunter develops truly real and believable characters that speak with voices that are universally human and represent much more than the surroundings of their southern setting.
The narrative focuses primarily around five characters: John Singer, a deaf mute man who loses his best friend to incarceration in a mental institution at the novel’s opening; Mick Kelly, a young tomboyish woman with a love for music; Biff Brannon, the owner of a restaurant who loses his wife to cancer; Jake Blount a wandering drunk with aims to ignite socialist/communist sympathies in the working class; and Dr. Copeland, the town’s only African American doctor who aspires to disrupt the indignities of racism and oppression. Each character is richly endowed with dreams and lofty goals and each is weighed down by his or her social limitations.
The narrative voice transitions from the perspective of each of the characters as they interact with each other, yet the deaf mute, John Singer, stands as the center of the narrative bond between each of the other four characters. Although Singer is deaf and mute, he is able to read the lips of others and his focused attention causes the others to trust him as though he were a wise confidant to each of their desires. However, what Mick, Biff, Jake, & the Dr. fail to see because Singer is unable to speak with them is that Singer is disconnected from them and is forever focused on his incarcerated and fellow mute friend. Through the dialogue and action represented throughout the book, each of the four speaking characters represent a major theme of oppression, loss, struggle, growth, and hope. Singer’s relationship as the focal point with the other characters comes to represent the limiting burden of social structures that alienates each man and woman from the heart of their desires.