Brad Dourif, who starred in the 1979 film version of “Wise Blood”, had this to say about the screenplay: “I thought it was the weirdest, strangest, coolest thing that I had ever read”—which could serve as a pretty good blurb for the book as well. I say that because “Wise Blood”, the novel, is actually my favorite work of fiction. However, I recommend it with a measure of reserve because it is definitely not for everyone.
The plot concerns a young man named Hazel Motes. Recently discharged from the army, he ventures into a city in the Deep South where he means to “do some things I never have done before.” His deeper intention is to prove to himself and to the world that he does not believe in Jesus. Soon he begins a new church which he calls the Church without Christ, “Where the blind don’t see and the lame don’t walk and what’s dead stays that way.”
But Hazel is a contradiction. He indulges in sin but derives little enjoyment from it. And when he attempts to corrupt the daughter of a certain rival, he fails to realize that he is the innocent. The girl is trying to corrupt him. The author herself described her protagonist as “a Christian malgré lui” (that is, Christian in-spite-of-himself).
Hazel’s automobile is an important symbol in the story. It is meant to signify his false sense of freedom (“Nobody with a good car needs to be justified”). The car is his dilapidated substitute for the life-giving freedom of the Holy Ghost. Another crucial symbol is a shrunken man that is on display in a museum. This object is presented to Hazel Motes as a “new jesus” [sic], but he is finally constrained to see it for what it is: a grotesque sign of what humankind becomes without God.
Hazel Motes’ rebellion against Christ is extreme; so is his eventual conversion. The penances he inflicts on himself (quicklime and strands of barbed wire are involved) are harsh indeed. Most readers will side with the landlady, Mrs. Flood, who says to Hazel: “There’s no reason for it. People have quit doing it.” To which Hazel responds: “They ain’t quit doing it as long as I’m doing it.” He began his eccentric crusade in the Church without Christ; he ends up immersed in Christ—but without a Church.
Author Evelyn Waugh said of “Wise Blood”: ‘It isn’t the kind of book I like much, but it is good of its kind.’
I have never been able to figure out the “kind” of book Waugh had in mind. The sheer originality of “Wise Blood” is, for me, one of its strongest attractions. It is an amazing grace tale that is simply inimitable—and amazing.