I just recently made the pleasure of Kelsey’s acquaintance, and now we are in an IRL writing group. Her presence is a joy, as are her thoughtful comments, fantastical sermons, and her general air of practical whimsy. Kelsey is new to this whole writing-on-the-internet thing, and I am so glad she is starting. Also, I read this book when I was a teenager as well, and it completely went over my head (not surprising, but still rather depressing). I do believe it is time to crack it open again. Heaven knows I love a good underdog story.
The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter
by Kelsey Maddox
I don’t remember where I acquired the book or when. Nor do I recall what age I was—a teenager, I know that much. I do remember that it was a stiff, musty, cheap paperback, and that it was hard to keep it propped open. The print was small, type-writer looking, and there were no illustrations. It is a substantial read, and the print felt especially minuscule for all the movement that happened on one page.
I also recall thinking that with a title like The Heart is a Lonely Hunter that the content was perhaps too “mature” for me, and that maybe I should wait to read it. But I had a habit of woofing down entire voluminous novels, even if I couldn’t fully fathom them. The summer that I was seventeen I read three of Shakespeare’s plays and four other classic pieces of lit. That is what my teenage self did on vacation. I couldn’t help it. Books were a kinship that no human offered. They were my friends. Books were the very thing that cured and caused my isolation. I didn’t lack friends entirely, but I would sometimes choose a book over a social gathering. How strange! It was easier for me to identify with the book characters than my own friends.
It was an escape.
And I had found the ultimate one. This book, this one in particular, epitomized my isolation. It embraced why I could be unique and exploited it, all at once. There were so many characters to escape into, each of them a different part of me. So easy it was for me to identify with them, yet each of them radically different from me to a degree of deep intrigue. I couldn’t put it down, this stiff, musty paperback, even though it persisted in closing on me. I would read until my eyes grew wide or would slowly begin to ache, becoming big pools of tired.
This, this novel is the great anthem of underdogs and isolation. The ensemble of main characters, 5 of them at least, each a different offering: the deaf-mute, the diner owner, the Greek who smelled bad. The 12 year old girl I wanted to emulate—her name was Mick. I wanted to live in her house, see the world from her gritty perspective, and be as transformed by a Jewish boy and a deaf-mute and she was. I wanted her short hair and audacity to smoke cigarettes. I wanted to eat at that diner with her and have the same hopes and dreams and sadness. I was curious about the deaf-mute, just like her. I wanted to be his friend—he was so intelligent for his lack of sound. How could you forget him, John Singer? I wanted to sleep on the other half of his bunk bed and write down what he had to say to the world. In this unusual spree of characters and their interwoven stories, I had, for once found people I could identify with—a much more difficult feat in reality.
SO GOES THE TALE OF THE UNDERDOG.
Winsome, yet mysterious.
Exposed, yet withdrawn.
In view, but you turn your gaze away so as not to gawk.
Pridefully different, embarrassedly alone.
Naively divergent, happily oppressed.
Wanting belonging, peacefully singular.
Lacking self-propriety, careless of what others think.
Economically poor, focused on ailments of self.
Navigating self worth by both flaunting and hiding ailments.
Internally stormy, yet full of surprise victory.
Underdogdom was my destiny. Entering the world at two pounds, runt-like in my qualities, I was set for certain meekness. Surely I was destined, with my parent’s broken marriage, my dad’s mental illness, my mom’s intestinal disorder. Was I humble in my isolation? Or just lacking self confidence? Naive? Or just hadn’t asked the questions yet? By high school, I had figured out how to caged-bird sing (thank you, dearest Maya Angelou), beat-of-my-own-drum marching, flaunting outright how I am not like you. Was it circumstantial? Or was it just…me? Regardless of circumstance or simply personal development, there was one thing that differentiates an underdog from a down and out mope: the underdog never loses HOPE.
With the underdog, there is an element of surprise. This capacity to shock society, or even just whoever is around, is the most gratifying thing the created underdog could feel! Even if it is only momentary, it is proof that the underdog can rise above, can excel, or in the very least, is an adequate human being.
In the novel, this is the most vivid through John Singer–the deaf mute–the man I so badly wanted to become friends with in real life. I was so very sad for him when he lost his one true friend, the Greek—such an irrevocable plot twist. Now what would he do? No one else seemed to miss the Greek for what good is a deaf-mute to the general populace? This, this is the song of the underdog—set in a time when people seemed to have less education concerning underdogs. They are all underdogs in this story and they are all champions in their isolation because for once their story is told. We all have stories to tell and the tale of the underdog is no less valuable, though it may seem so because that is the very essence of the underdog—to be less valuable. I think most people want to see the underdog on top for one glistening moment, but would they want to remain an underdog after that? Would you want to remain isolated and ailing?
HOW DARE YOU UNDERESTIMATE THE ISOLATED CREATURES!
And is this not the message of Christ?
(Christ: The paraclete society shocker. The turn-normal-upside-down bringer. The “isolation [read: solitude] is where you’ll find me” lover. Is this not his message?)
And this is why I have read this book over and over: it is where I began to see Christ in the underdog. It is where I began to see Christ in myself. It is where I began to see Christ in those who were like me, underdogs, and for the first time in my teenage life, I made friends that were not books.
Kelsey Maddox is a lover of words and far too many other things, but most especially: people, the outdoors, gardening, biking and rock climbing, and the monastic life. When she is not attempting the craft of words, figuring out the perfect from-scratch ice cream recipe or problem solving scaling a rock, she works for Grace Trinity Community Church (www.gracetrinitychurch.org/) and hangs out with the two most swell dudes she knows: her husband Phil and son Oliver—well, three dudes if you count the dog!
Other posts in the Book That Changed My Life series: