What a great and burdensome thing it must be, to have written as your debut novel something as immensely powerful as The Heart is a Lonely Hunter. Where do you go from there? How can you compete?
Clock Without Hands is McCuller’s fourth and final novel, written 21 years after Hunter. It opens and closes with J.T. Malone, a middle-aged pharmacist diagnosed with terminal cancer. His remaining lifespan serves as a timeline for the novel, though he quickly recedes into the background of the main story, which instead centers around Judge Clane, an elderly ex-congressman who epitomizes the arrogant bigotry of the Old South, and Sherman Jones, a young blue-eyed black man who was orphaned shortly after birth and carries a large—and not wholly unjustified—chip on his shoulder.
The story builds on the themes of racism and homosexuality that first appeared in Hunter, and while they were less obvious in her first novel (particularly those of homosexuality), their subtlety lent them power. In Hunter, the ruthless racism of the south is shown directly through the visceral descriptions of savagery against Dr. Copeland and his son, whereas in Clock it emerges through the musings of the Judge, who longs for an antebellum era he never actually knew and abhors integration of the races.
However, where a lesser novelist would tumble into saccharine cliche, McCullers strengthens the story by playing against type. Sherman, the black orphan who gets a job as the judge’s secretary, would in a lesser novel be a sympathetic and heroic character. But in Clock Without Hands, he is downright unpleasant—arrogant, rude, untrustworthy, quick to lash out at anyone and everyone. We see his wounds more clearly by what they have made of him, and McCullers makes the more difficult choice of showing that the scars of a hard life, mental and physical, aren’t always attractive.
In mediocre stories, underprivileged protagonists often present with the psychological equivalent of the single scar across the eye favored by rugged action heroes: a disfigurement that lends character and gravitas without damaging handsomeness. The truth, which is at its core the subject of all great literature, is much messier. Often wounded people are hard to be around. We want our underdogs to be polite and heroic, but sometimes politeness and heroics are themselves the result of privilege.
The character of the Judge presents the same idea in reverse: while the novel is unabashed in its implicit criticism of his worldview, and is not above a satiric tone at times, the overall picture it paints is one of pity more than anything. The Judge’s supreme arrogance is pared away and revealed as a hollow varnish painted over a great gaping emptiness. In the book’s closing pages, when he learns of the Supreme Court’s decision to integrate the school system, his final charge for segregation becomes a pathetic farce ,and the last bit of that varnish is torn away. The people in Clock Without Hands are neither heroes nor villains. They’re simply people. And while the story lacks the peerless power of The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, it is nevertheless a strong and moving novel by one of the twentieth century’s greatest novelists.