In Flannery O’Connor’s short story, “A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” a family on vacation in Florida is murdered by an escaped convict known as The Misfit. In the course of a strange theological discussion with one of his victims, The Misfit accuses Jesus of having “thrown everything off balance.” He continues, “If He did what He said, then it’s nothing for you to do but enjoy the few minutes you got left the best way you can—by killing somebody or burning down his house or doing some other meanness to him.” He concludes, “No pleasure but meanness.”
I thought of The Misfit recently when my husband found out that someone had smashed five of the windows of his beloved ’90 Volvo station wagon, including the windshield and the rear window, which houses a rather fragile defrosting mechanism. Apparently, this someone had tried to hotwire the car with a screwdriver and having failed, decided that it should not be a total loss, so he or she (let’s be gender-neutral here) broke the windows for, presumably, the pure joy of it. We were out of town at the time, and no one heard anything.
I couldn’t help but wonder what it sounded like, all that breaking glass, and what it felt like—how mean a person would have to be to enjoy doing something like that, or how angry at having been cheated by fate, or rather, by Volvo’s highly secure ignition system, out of a joy-ride at 3 a.m. in a clunky unfashionable vehicle that has been accused of being the exclusive domain of brie-eating, yoga-doing Democrats.
If you are an assiduous reader of this column, you will recall that I wrote about this Volvo in 2005 when we purchased it from the classic old lady who kept it in a garage. Much like the war in Iraq, our association with the Volvo had started out relatively cheaply, but its costs soon escalated to a point where I basically had to pull the plug, which unfortunately no one has yet thought to do with the war in Iraq.
But after a year of sitting idle and being forced to contemplate its own misdeeds, the Volvo decided to turn over a new leaf, and with a little coaxing and some TLC, it was soon back on the road. My husband, who provided the TLC, was once a Volvo mechanic, and this is approximately the 29th he has owned. He loves Volvos, and it’s true that he is an ardent Democrat, does occasionally eat brie, and has been known to do a little yoga, so maybe there’s something to the stereotype after all. He lavished care on the Volvo as if it were one of his own children, and soon it was gleaming and cruising down the road without a care in the world.
At least, until this window incident. The estimated replacement cost for the windows caused us to notice that we did not have comprehensive insurance coverage on the vehicle, since it seemed crazy to insure a car whose windows cost more than its Blue Book value. Now we were faced with a dilemma: should we fix the windows, or, for the same price, buy a new old Volvo? Should we leave the uninsured Volvo to die in the street?
But my husband is not one to desert his vehicular comrade, and after some deliberation and some gnashing of teeth, he bought some windows from a junkyard and installed them himself, something that had hitherto been outside his area of expertise but which he found he was quite capable of doing. Let me tell you, installing a bunch of enormous windows by yourself, sometimes in the rain, may be a miserable activity, but it is also empowering, and when he was finished, my husband was pretty pleased with himself.
“So you’re saying the person who broke the windows actually did you all a favor?” my brother-in-law asked over dinner the other night.
“No, not exactly,” we said. “It’s just that in some ways, a stupid, terrible action can sometimes have positive results that in no way justify the action.”
So we’re not exactly going to write our window-smasher—let’s call him or her The Misfit—a thank-you note. But I would like to meet him/her and ask, just what the hell kind of person does something like that? How is it that some people find pleasure in meanness?
This is something I would also like to ask the audiences of the recent Republican debates. At the most recent one, some audience members booed a soldier serving in Iraq, apparently objecting to the fact that he is gay. At a previous Republican debate, Wolf Blitzer queried Ron Paul about a hypothetical case in which a “healthy” thirty-year-old man goes into a coma but has no health insurance. “Are you saying society should just let him die?” Blitzer asked. A few members of the audience yelled, “Yeah!” and then the crowd broke into wild applause when Paul said something about “freedom.”
Perhaps there is something about Volvos, or yoga, or even brie that makes people more compassionate; you would never, ever hear this kind of thing at a Democratic debate, though you might hear some waffling and some kowtowing to Big Business. Of course, not all Republicans are monsters who yammer about “freedom” on the one hand and then try to dictate everyone’s sexual preferences on the other; it’s just recently that their party has been hijacked by the kind of people who would honestly rather see someone die in the street than pay taxes so we can have even a pale shadow of the kind of health care system available in every other developed country.
Meanwhile, the other day in Georgia, Flannery O’Connor’s home state, a man was executed for a crime he may or may not have committed. Although our legal system is supposed to find people guilty beyond a reasonable doubt, there were apparently some reasonable doubts about Troy Davis’ guilt. Nevertheless, the appeals process was unable to prove him innocent, though as any student of high school Civics will tell you, the legal system is supposed to prove guilt, not innocence—oh wait, they don’t teach Civics any more. I must be old.
Opponents of the death penalty hope that Davis’ death will add “momentum” to their efforts to halt capital punishment. In other words, a stupid, terrible action can sometimes have positive results that in no way justify the action. But recent polls show that most Americans still support the death penalty.
Who are you, I wondered as I listened to the people booing the gay soldier during the Republican debate, and what’s your problem? I picture one of the booing men—they were all men, I think—as a child growing up in an oppressive little town somewhere in the south. His father was a drunken abusive alcoholic who punished little Joe (last name: Sixpack) every time he showed compassion, which the father viewed as weak and sissified. Poor little Joe was mocked when he cried, and when he expressed admiration for, say, the color pink, the drunken dad told him he was a “fag” and beat him with his belt. One day, Joe’s dog had puppies, and the dad took them out to the pond and drowned them all.
This is who I hear when I hear that booing Republican voice: scared, sad little Joe, hiding in the body of a big loud man. What kind of person are you, Joe? I ask him, and he answers, “I’m an American.” Then he adds, “It’s no real pleasure in life.”