Hazel Motes returns from the war (with an unnamed injury, something that the war had done to his insides, earning him a pension check every month) and anoints himself preacher in the Church of Christ without Christ. He encounters the Hawkses, a man and his adolescent daughter who are sidewalk evangelists who use Mr. Hawks’s blindness to stir up support. However, though their story relies upon Hawks’s self-immolation—blinding himself with lime—as their show of grand faith, it is revealed that Hawks lacked the courage to actually blind himself, and can actually see. As the Hawkses are introduced alongside a street vendor hawking potato peelers, from the beginning their religious faith is suspect.
Hazel becomes obsessed with the Hawkses, however, and sets out to preach his own Church of Christ Without Christ as a way of making an impression on the alleged blind man. He intends to seduce his daughter, Sabbath Hawks, and win believers to his Church in order to impress Hawks. Unbeknownst to him, fifteen-year-old Sabbath Hawks has her eye on him as well, seeing him as her ticket out of life as a street evangelist with her father. Haze wants to seduce Sabbath as a way of confirming his own sin. Sin and self-immolation for sin are the ways in which Haze confirms his identity: when asked why he rejects Jesus, for example, he says, “‘What do I need with Jesus? I got Leora Watts” (31) (Leora Watts being the woman with the friendliest bed in town whom he first beds after his arrival).
Along with Sabbath, Haze also attracts the attention of Enoch Emery, a young man new to the big city who claims to possess “wise blood,” a gift from God which he thinks directs him toward his destiny. Enoch has been rejected by everyone he has encountered, and tries to attach himself to Haze. Haze originally shows interest in Enoch, but only because Enoch claims to know the Hawkses. Enoch, however, feels that his blood is drawing him to Haze and his new jesus; in fact, he steals a mummy from a natural history museum and delivers it to Haze (via Sabbath) in order to be Haze’s new jesus. While Sabbath is shown with the mummy in an image of a grotesque pieta, Haze refuses the mummy and destroys it. Enoch’s one positive encounter with another ends up being with a man in a gorilla suit promoting a movie. This leads him to attack the man in the suit, steal the costume, and run away into the woods in the costume, happier than he has ever been.
Haze continues his evangelism of his Christless church and his own self-immolation from the hood of his Essex automobile, a key element of his ministry. As he says in his preaching, "Where you come from is gone, where you thought you were going to never was there, and where you are is no good unless you can get away from it. Where is there a place for you to be? No place” (93). However, he encounters competition from another would-be evangelical charlatan in the form of Onnie Jay Holy (real name Hoover Shoats); after he refuses Shoats’s offer to team up, Shoats recruits his own “prophet” who bears a striking resemblance to Haze. Haze chases down this prophet and runs him over with his car, killing him. Shortly after this, he is caught driving without a license by a police officer who pushes his car off of an embankment.
After losing his car, Haze succeeds in blinding himself with lime. His landlady, Mrs. Flood, takes advantage of his weakness to siphon off as much of his pension money as she can while he is such a vulnerable state. However, she does eventually push him too far, demanding that he marry her, and he leaves, only to be found near death in a ditch by police. They return him to Mrs. Flood and he dies.
While I do adore this novel, it seems like it can’t decide whether it wants to be a short story or a novel. It might have worked better as a collection of stories, some sort of Go Down, Moses, or Winesberg, Ohio, collection. O'Connor truly is a master of the short story form, which is apparent in this novel. As it is, the stories of Haze, Enoch, and the Hawkses don’t quite align in a satisfactory manner. Although, the asymmetry of their stories and the lack of a satisfactory closure may be part of the point.
Despite this, however, it is a fascinating meditation and exploration of the meaning of faith and sin and “justification.” Reading it this time, I was struck by how important gender is in the novel and its understanding of faith. As I was paying extra attention to the symbolism of the car in this reading (I’m writing a paper about the novel in conjunction with the industrial song “Jesus Built My Hotrod” by the industrial band Ministry, which samples dialogue from the movie version of the novel), it struck me as a very gendered symbol in the novel. I think that at least part of Haze’s pursuit of a Church of Christ Without Christ is a pursuit of a masculine faith: as Haze puts it, “‘I believe in a new kind of jesus,’ he said, ‘one that can’t waste his blood redeeming people with it, because he’s all man and ain’t got any God in him. My church is the Church Without Christ” (69). Haze says this as he’s rejecting Sabbath’s offer of Christian salvation; I read this rejection as specifically rejecting a nurturing, feminine Christianity represented by Sabbath (and, in fact, all of the women in the novel). As it is Hawks whom Haze seeks approval from, and it is his own father’s example of sexual pursuit of women (which his mother characterizes as sin in need of purification through self-immolation), I think one key to this novel is the bifurcation of faith into masculine and feminine arenas.