Home > Book Reviews, Harry Crews > Book Review – A Feast of Snakes by Harry Crews

Book Review – A Feast of Snakes by Harry Crews

This very rarely happens: that I should pick up a book by an author I’ve never heard of, bring it home, spend three hours of something approaching reading rapture, and be ready to write a review on the same evening. But that was my day, and this is Harry Crews and A Feast of Snakes. Some basic research on Google and Wikipedia has shown me that Crews has had a long and somewhat successful writing career in the US, with more than ten books to his name. He’s certainly not a household name here and I doubt he is in the US, which is a shame considering he’s ten times the writer Khaled Hosseini is. It’s hardly a surprise though, given the nature of Crews’ subject matter and style. Or perhaps I should say his sustained attack on the reader’s values and sensibilities. This book has the force of a sledgehammer and it is enough to convince me that Crews is an excellent writer, perhaps even a great one. I’d have to read the rest of his books to know for sure.

So what is A Feast of Snakes about? In the town of Mystic, Georgia, in 1975 (the year before the novel was published), Joe Lon Mackey lives in a trailer on a ten-acre property with his wife Elfie and two infant sons. Joe Lon runs a quasi-legal liquor outfit that specialises in selling moonshine to ‘niggers’ (as they are referred to through the book). Joe Lon is about twenty or so, a serious alcoholic, a wife-beater, a rapist, an adulterer, and finally a multiple murderer. His father, Big Joe, trains pit bulls that are so ferocious that they always win their fights. Joe Lon’s sister, known mostly as ‘Beeda,’ has gone insane and spends her days in her room watching television, with a bed pan under her bed. His mother has committed suicide after she tried to run away with another man and was hauled back. The town’s sherrif, Buddy Matlow, routinely locks up black women in the prison with a view to raping them. Joe Lon’s friend Willard is a sadistic terror, much as Joe Lon himself is. Lottie Mae, a black woman raped by Buddy Matlow, becomes so terrified of snakes that she carries a razor with her at all times in self defense. And I’m not even getting started here.

This is a black book. It is frequently gruesome and unflinching in its description of some of the most squalid acts human beings can commit, and yet it is, at times, uproariously funny. Some of the dialogue (in Southern drawl) needed to be read again and again. The central idea is that of the rattlesnake, which Mystic is famous for. Once a year, an increasing number of tourists and snake fanciers descend on the town with a view to catching and killing as many rattlesnakes as they can find. The whole town is snake mad. The novel is pulsing with sadistic violence and there basically aren’t any likeable characters at all in it, with the possible exception of Lottie Mae (and she is more of a pathetic figure than a sympathetic one).

Crews is the kind of writer who simply describes all of this without any obvious moralising, but the material is so depraved, so shocking, that one can’t but read this as anything other than a stern condemnation of the society of violence depicted here. I don’t know if this book has a cult following, but it certainly should have, as it’s simply one of the better novels I’ve read in a long time.

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