I can’t decide about Bevel.
In Flannery O’Connor’s short story The River, Harry Ashfield—who calls himself “Bevel” after the riverside preacher—gets to leave his neglectful parents’ apartment for the day with his sitter, Mrs. Conning. Harry-Bevel learns many things at the Connin’s country house that day. For instance, Harry-Bevel learns that a carpenter named Jesus Christ made him. Harry-Bevel had always thought that “Jesus Christ” was a swear word.
Mrs. Connin takes Harry-Bevel to the river to see Reverend Bevel Summers heal people, even though the preacher had failed to heal Mr. Connin: “He couldn’t do nothing for Mr. Connin, though,” Mrs. Connin says. “Mr. Connin didn’t have the faith, but he said he would try anything once.”
At the river, Reverend Summers preaches about the River of Life: “All rivers come from that one River and go back to it like it was the ocean sea and if you believe, you can lay your pain in that River and get rid of it because that’s the River that was made to carry sin. It’s a River full of pain itself, pain itself, moving toward the Kingdom of Christ, to be washed away, slow, you people, slow as this here old red water river round my feet.”
Mrs. Connin pushes Harry-Bevel forward to be baptized. Though he initially thinks it’s a joke, Harry-Bevel changes his mind when he looks into the preacher’s eyes. Then the preacher shoves Harry-Bevel backwards under the water and pulls him up.
(This summary is longer than I thought it would be. Flannery O’Connor always said that a good story resists paraphrase; clearly, The River is a good story. Which is why I can’t decide about Bevel.)
Mrs. Connin takes Harry-Bevel home, where his parents scoff at Mrs. Connin’s blind faith in Bevel the preacher and Bevel the boy. When Harry-Bevel wakes to a silent apartment, he eats crackers, drinks ginger ale, and knocks over ashtrays. Sitting on the couch, “his expression changed as if he were gradually seeing appear what he didn’t know he’d been looking for. Then all of a sudden he knew what he wanted to do.”
Then Harry-Bevel goes to the river and drowns himself.
I said that so crassly because Harry-Bevel’s death can’t be paraphrased. To relate it properly, I’d have to quote four paragraphs from O’Connor—or better yet, the entire story. Because Harry-Bevel’s death defies all explanation. He pushes back at you, like the river pushed back at him until the current took him away. But unlike Bevel, who might have been saved by shoving himself deeper and deeper into the river until the current took him, I don’t know if I’ll find The River’s point by thrusting myself deeper and deeper into it.
Yet I still must decide if Bevel is saved.
O’Connor consciously ends her stories with a violent moment of grace. One woman gets gored by a bull’s horns. Another has a stroke. Another is shot by an escaped convict. Each time, the violence forces the afflicted character to realign her perspective and accept or reject grace. The woman gored by a bull is physically turned upside down and mutters a prayer. The woman with a stroke sinks further into the past, into oblivion, disconnected from the present and her horrified son. The woman shot by a convict sheds her prejudices and has compassion on her killer.
But each time, the brutal grace comes from outside. The character has no control over grace’s coming. Bevel, on the other hand, goes to the river and forces the violence upon him. If violence hails grace, did Bevel force grace’s hand?
You can’t force God to save you. As a Protestant, I adhere to “grace alone, faith alone” and wonder to what extent Flannery O’Connor, a Catholic, did. Yet I empathize most with her characters who pester God until He finally turns His ear. In Revelation, Mrs. Turpin begs God to answer her question until He finally does. The violent moment that caused Mrs. Turpin to question came from God; her vision at the story’s end also comes from God. So although Mrs. Turpin sticks with her questions, both moments of grace come from God. God’s free grace saves her—not her own perseverance.
But what about Bevel? Bevel doesn’t start questioning because of an initial moment of violent grace—unless being baptized counts. I’m wary of saying that Bevel’s baptism is “just like” Mrs. Turpin’s getting whacked over the head with a book. Both Bevel and Mrs. Turpin resist paraphrase, and with it, corollaries.
And Bevel’s death-by-drowning differs from Mrs. Turpin’s salvific vision in one big way—he caused it. From Bevel’s perspective, the river took him. But the reader knows the river took him because that’s what river currents do—they pull you under and away. The river had no agency or volition; Bevel did.
But you could say that the bull that gored Mrs. May in Greenleaf had no real will to do it, either, since it was just an animal. In both instances, someone had to cause the irrational thing to hurt the character. That “someone” would have to be God. Thus, the moment of grace came from God. Bevel did not save himself.
And so I can’t decide.
 Flannery O’Connor, “The River,” in The Complete Stories 157-174 (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux), 159.
 Ibid., 165.
 Ibid., 172.