Misfits in the World of Mystery and Manners
The Misfit, in Flannery O’Connor’s A Good Man Is Hard To Find, says he was, “a different breed of dog from his brothers and sisters,” a revelation that is echoed by Perry Smith in Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood: “I hate you, all of you‑‑Dad and everybody,” he says to his sister, and claims to have “a brilliant mind and talent plus,” attributes that set him apart from others. These and other similarities between Perry and the Misfit illustrate the dangers of the attitudes and actions of those who find themselves outside the borders of what is sometimes termed “polite society.” The manner in which O’Connor and Capote tell of these two killers reveals not only the similarities between them but also shows similarities with other tales told of characters in similar situations: Oedipa Maas, of Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49, and the equally cryptically-named Milkman Dead, from Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon both undertake quests which take them out of the bounds of their normal lives and both encounter secret societies that entwine and entangle themselves about the lives of the two characters.
These societies are intentionally outside of the world of manners and daily living. They inhabit a world of mystery and both have used violence to accomplish their ends. The essential relationship between these four stories is the relationship between these two worlds of mystery and manners and the tale each author tells of their convergence.
There is a certain instant, common to these stories, in which one character or another must assess how he has found himself, intentionally or not, irrevocably outside the framework of mannered society. For the Misfit it comes as his accomplices eliminate an entire family: “It’s some that can live their whole life out without asking about it and it’s others has to know why it is,” he relates, and characterizes himself as one of the latter. “I wisht I had of been there,” he says of the time of Christ, “if I had of been there I would of known and I wouldn’t be like I am now.” His place in time does not fit him, but this is not all: his clothes don’t fit him, his “scholarly” description doesn’t fit his acts and, most compellingly, his manner doesn’t fit him. “I know you’re a good man,” says the doomed grandmother, and to hear the man talk one might almost agree; the “oncet” of his particular, almost flowery diction and his concerned politeness as he chats with his victims is as misplaced as any aspect of polite manners in any cold blooded killing ought to be. The “misfit-ness” of the man is so complete that it obscures the killing itself; the speaker seems more intrigued by the strangeness of the man than horrified by his behavior.
As Capote gives us his story in his piecemeal way it becomes apparent that Perry is as much a misfit as the Misfit is. The parallels between the two are quite striking: Perry, though not particularly scholarly in appearance, is described as somewhat of a pseudo‑scholar, and is even described as a “misfit” at one point. The mother of the family he kills tells him she is sure he is a “decent young man.” And finally, his behavior is described by the detectives as “ludicrously inconsistent” with his crime.
In the end of his story, the Misfit is not at all sure of his pleasure in meanness, for, having just committed an inarguable meanness he concludes by stating, “It’s no real pleasure in life.” The reasons for the outcast state of both of these two characters seem to hinge on their inability to cope with “everydayness,” or the mundane requirements of existence. Both characters are befriended by small animals near the end of their stories, signifying that they are identify far more with these creatures than with the humans they live among.
The two stories also share a certain horrible convergence. O’Connor and Capote both chart a narrowing gap between the paths of the killers and the victims with the detached inevitability of a traffic cop describing the course of a collision.
These collisions contrast sharply with the soft interweaving of the two worlds explored by Oedipa and Milkman. Both inhabit a world of relative normality and are, somewhat against their wills, caught up in a Alice‑in-wonderland quest. Oedipa is indeed possessed of something like the innocence of Alice, and the beginnings of her journey are not much less innocuous than the average rabbit hole, but there is a complex, murky warren beneath.
Rabbit Warren is, in fact, a character that Oedipa meets later, and it is the names in this story that first tip us off to Pynchon’s satirical eye. The interracial puns in these names underscore both the melting‑pot American identity and the individual identity of each character. The book is populated not by people but by signposts, significant only in what they stand for.
Milkman’s quest may be better characterized by the Holy Grail than the looking glass but it is with the same concern for names (and somewhat the same comic sense) that Morrison tells of the Dead family. Milkman, upon learning of the way his grandfather gets his name from a “cracker” and “took it. Like a fuckin’ sheep,” knows that the name has nothing to do with him, nothing to do with who he really is anymore than the name “Milkman” does: Milkman’s identity is blank as this nickname, he is a “man” in a sort of “milky” limbo and can then act as a catalyst for the actions of the other characters. He is the repository of his father’s plans, his mother’s wistfulness, Guitar’s political wisdom, his sister’s hate and Hagar’s love. Milkman is defined by these things more than he influences them and it is only after he has been as fully fleshed out by these people and events as possible that he decides to take up the quest bequeathed upon him by his father. Ostensibly it is a quest for gold but is ultimately a search for his identity, found among the bones and ghosts of his ancestors.
Neither Milkman nor Morrison, however, are erstwhile Alex Haleys, nor is the search for any Kunta‑Kinte. Milkman’s quest takes him away from his home and plunges him deep into the shadow world which he only vaguely knew as inhabited by Guitar and the other “days.” This order, of which Guitar is a part, is the antithesis of the struggle for legitimate identity that both Milkman individually and Black society in general are experiencing. It is the dark side of Guitar’s friendship that has him warning Milkman, paradoxically, that his “day has come,” just as it is the dark side of Black activism that plays this nonsensical numbers game, which threatens the life of the movement just as its day has come.
It is not; however, for ancestral identity that Oedipa is involved with Tristero, for she undertakes the quest in search of the secret society itself. It is, of course, in some sense intertwined with her identity, for although Oedipa is well educated and presumably well equipped for the chase, in fact, “just a whiz at pursuing strange words in Jacobean texts,” she is also an appointee of Pierce Inverarity as is everyone and everything she encounters; it is a bit like not being able to see the forest for the trees, or better yet because you are one of the trees.
Peirce is the prime mover of the universe Oedipa inhabits. Instead of “God only knows,” she finds herself exclaiming, “Pierce Inverarity only knows.” The players around her change as fast as she catches up to them, until they are all, “on something, mad, possible enemies, dead.” Milkman is similarly dizzied, “Everybody kept changing right in front of him,” but this change heralds a breakthrough for Milkman that it does not for Oedipa. Tristero and the Seven Days both exist as legacies bequeathed upon America by those who named it, gave it substance and identity. An identity apart from these legacies is possible only through embracing the most basic characteristics of both America and one’s self.
The existence of these shadowy societies, as outside the daylight world as the Misfit is outside and outcast, is a mystery to society and yet somehow the antithetical and necessary darker side, as the night is to the day. The matrices and circuit board cities are only tenuously superimposed over the “tender flesh” of the land itself, but both make up the inviolable whole. The misfit exists in each individual as surely as Tristero exists, “in its twilight, its aloofness, its waiting.”