There are a handful of books that seem to make in on every “best of” list for 20th century fiction. The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter is one of them. And rightfully so.
Centered around a deaf mute man named John Singer in a Georgian Mill Town, the book slowly expands to encompass a group of characters who are superficially unrelated, but share a profound inner pain that Singer, in some strange way, seems to soothe. Though fundamentally good, Singer is not some beatific healer, but is himself deeply wounded, and seeks his own solace in a friendship with a Greek man named Spiros Antonapoulos. Though their friendship is platonic and there is no hint of romantic affection between the two, their interactions have a subtext of unrequited love, as Singer’s devotion to Spiros is not mirrored by Spiros’ behavior towards Singer. This is not necessarily because Spiros is manipulative or selfish, but more likely from an undiagnosed mental illness or developmental issue. Much remains unspoken and unlearned, which is an accurate reflection of how mental illness was treated at the time.
McCullers’ prose is excellent in a graceful, understated way. She writes in a style I admire in no small part because I can’t emulate it. It takes a special gift to write prose that is lyrical but not ornate, that carries poetry in simple, declarative sentences. Whole paragraphs can pass without a single comma, and her use of metaphor is restrained, giving the few that she uses greater power. The book is a masterpiece.