The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter (1940) by Carson McCullers
Set in a 1930s mill town in Georgia, the events follow John Singer, a mute man, and the people who interact with him. Singer is a gentle man with an intelligent face who seems to understand everything they tell him. And they tell him everything--all their hopes and dreams; the secret things they've never told anyone else. He gives little in the way of feedback, but it seems to be enough for them just to have told someone who they believe understands. The mere act of listening seems to help them and they find their lives changing in subtle ways.
There is Margaret "Mick" Kelly, a young teenage girl--living in poverty and dreaming of a life of music. There is Biff Brannon, the owner of the New York Cafe where Singer eats everyday and interacts with most of the other characters. Biff observes a lot, questions more, and asks the least of Singer. There is Dr. Benedict Mady Copeland, a black doctor with a huge distrust of all white men (for good reason in the 30s) until he meets Singer. Singer is like no white man he ever met and he finds himself able to talk to him like no else. There is Jake Blount, an angry drunk who would like to spur the working man to throw off the bonds placed on him by the corporate millionaires and billionaires. Who would like to see every man regardless of wealth, race, or place in society have the freedom due him--but who doesn't see a clear way to inspire action. And, finally, there is the man Singer considers his only friend--Spiros Antonapolous, a fellow mute. Antonapolous tells Singer nothing, not even through sign language. But he is the only one that Singer talks to. Early in the book, Antonapolous has a breakdown and his cousin puts him into an institution and Singer makes visits periodically to keep the friendship going. When they are together, Singer's hands fly through the words, trying to tell his friend everything has happened since they were last together.
This novel is very character-driven. There is no real over-arching plot--just a day-to-day telling of the everyday events in the lives of these people. But the characters are so well-drawn and their need for real human interaction so tangible that it doesn't need much else. It is a very touching book--painful at times, especially in the final chapters, but moving and well worth the time. ★★★★
First line: In the town there were two mutes, and they were always together.
Last line: And when at last he was inside again he composed himself soberly to await the morning sun.