Tattoos and Salvation

Arts Letters: Flannery O’Connor’s Last Story

“When people have told me that because I am a Catholic, I cannot be an artist, I have had to reply, ruefully, that because I am a Catholic I cannot afford to be less than an artist.”

Flannery O’Connor, considered by many as one of the great writers of the 20th century, crafted stories that had stunning, almost sacramental impact. Plotlines were only the point of entry. Filled with laugh-out-loud humor, surprise and, at times, shocking violence, they reward thoughtful reading and provide a catapult into a deeper world of faith and spiritual reflection.

When O’Connor died of complications from lupus in 1964, she was only 39 and had written 31 stories and two novels. She worked almost to the very end. To keep going despite her doctor’s order to rest, she hid the manuscript she worked on under her hospital bed pillow, bringing it out when the coast was clear. Thanks to that final effort, O’Connor was able to finish “Parker’s Back,” a real gem that leaves the reader mulling over the inscrutable ways of divine Providence.

Parker’s Back

The main character of her story, O.E. Parker, is no athlete, but he could compete with the biggest NBA stars in at least one category: tattoo acquisition. His body is a living palette of color. Covered with a menagerie of animals — panthers, a lion, serpents, eagles and hawks —Elizabeth II on his stomach and Prince Philip on his liver, Parker would spend much time looking in the mirror whenever one big enough was available. Eventually, the only part of his body without a tattoo was his back. He didn’t want one there because he wouldn’t be able to see it.

Parker is, certainly, a colorful character, but he isn’t a likeable one. And there’s a reason for that. We don’t always like the people that God loves. His low-rent life of self-absorption generates little sympathy, but still a mysterious aura of divine election surrounds it. He doesn’t see this, but O’Connor does, and so do those readers ready to engage with her biblical and Catholic subtext.

A Change in Direction

For conversion to happen, somehow God has to break through and penetrate the soul’s outer shell of mundane obliviousness. Experiencing some form of transcendence can be a first step. To have depicted Parker as moved by a sunset or a symphony or some other form of the good, the true and the beautiful would have been too conventional for O’Connor. In her world, grace abounds in very unlikely places. Transcendence needed? Look no further than the traveling fair’s tattoo artist:

“Parker was fourteen when he saw a man in a fair, tattooed from head to foot … [He] was filled with emotion, lifted up as some people are when the flag passes. …[H]e was heavy and earnest, as ordinary as a loaf of bread. … [He] had never felt the least motion of wonder in himself. Until at the fair, it did not enter his head that there was anything out of the ordinary about the fact that he existed. Even then it did not enter his head, but a peculiar unease settled in him. It was as if a blind boy had been turned so gently in a different direction that he did not know that his destination had changed.”

His destination had changed, but he didn’t know it. When he was a teenager, his mother, horrified at his fighting and swearing, dragged him to a church revival. But he ran away and joined the Navy. He got on a boat to run away from God. If that sounds like the prophet Jonah, it should. In the Bible, God employs creative means — a storm at sea, “whale time,” the miraculous repentance of a bloodthirsty people, a withered gourd and withering heat — all in the attempt to bring the petulant prophet to see beyond the confines of his own egotism. A similar process is going on with Parker. God is in pursuit of that tattoo-covered soul.

Thus, Parker has a restlessness that never leaves him still, and he winds up getting kicked out of the Navy. He constantly finds himself doing things he doesn’t understand, the most incomprehensible one being his marriage to Sarah Ruth.

Opposites Attract?

An irreligious tattooist and a hyper-fundamentalist who thought churches were idolatrous and, of course, tattoos were simply the “vanity of vanities” — this was a curious match indeed. How could he possibly be attracted to a woman like this? He could not explain it. But he married her and found that he became more and more gloomy.

Getting more tattoos was the only way he found some relief. But he was running out of space. Still, he refused to get one on his back: It would be idiotic to get one that he couldn’t see without two mirrors. But what if it were one Sarah Ruth liked? He dismissed that thought as an impossibility. Wouldn’t she just yell at him? “At the judgment seat of God, Jesus is going to say to you, ‘What have you been doing all your life besides have pictures drawn all over you?’”

He couldn’t understand why he was staying with this woman who was ugly, pregnant and didn’t know how to cook. Was he losing his mind? He couldn’t stand it anymore. The tipping point came in the form of an accident while baling hay for his employer, an elderly woman.

“As he circled the field his mind was on a suitable design for his back. The sun, the size of a golf ball, began to switch regularly from in front to behind him, but he appeared to see it both places as if he had eyes in the back of his head. All at once he saw the tree reaching out to grasp him. A ferocious thud propelled him into the air, and he heard himself yelling in an unbelievably loud voice, ‘GOD ABOVE!’
“He landed on his back while the tractor crashed upside down into the tree and burst into flame. The first thing Parker saw were his shoes, quickly being eaten by the fire; one was caught under the tractor; the other was some distance away, burning by itself. He was not in them. He could feel the breath of the burning tree on his face. He scrambled backwards, still sitting, his eyes cavernous, and if he had known how to cross himself he would have done it.”

No Turning Back

It was his own Mosaic moment, a burning-bush encounter that left him unshod upon the holy ground of the final compulsion to act: “Parker did not allow himself to think on the way to the city. He only knew that there had been a great change in his life.” He was determined now to get the tattoo that he would not be able to see for himself. The tattoo that would finally break down and win over Sarah Ruth: It would be a tattoo of God.

In the shop, he quickly flipped through the catalogue, fully expecting a sign. He passed the typical pictures he recognized — the Good Shepherd, the Smiling Jesus, Jesus the Physician’s Friend. His heart roared like a generator “until he had almost reached the front of the book. On one of the pages a pair of eyes glanced at him swiftly. Parker sped on, then stopped. His heart too appeared to cut off; there was absolute silence. It said as plainly as if silence were a language itself, GO BACK. Parker returned to the picture — the haloed head of a flat, stern Byzantine Christ with all-demanding eyes. He sat there trembling; his heart began slowly to beat again as if it were being brought to life by a subtle power.”

Receiving the tattoo was a kind of baptism, an indelible mark with profound results: “[T]he eyes that were now forever on his back were eyes to be obeyed.” There was no going back; his old world was no longer an option. His drinking and cursing buddies toss him out of the bar, and his mind goes to Sarah Ruth: “The thought of her brought him slowly to his feet. She would know what he had to do. She would clear up the rest of it, and she would at least be pleased.” 

A happy ending on the way? Experienced O’Connor readers know to expect something more complicated. Writing from her deathbed no doubt made her more aware that to reign with Christ, we have to suffer with him (2 Timothy 2:12). The ambivalent conclusion of “Parker’s Back,” like so many of O’Connor’s stories, forces deeper reflection.

If we follow the thread of those thoughts, we discover that what takes us aback, what even shocks us, is part of a bigger plan. Certainly, we would prefer a more congenial version of Providence. But at least one thing is for sure: That tattoo is not coming off Parker’s back. In the eyes of God, Parker is a marked man … indelibly marked.

So, too, are we.

Legionary Father Steven Reilly writes from Washington, D.C.