Home > Book Reviews, Harry Crews > Two short reviews – Body and Scar Lover by Harry Crews

Two short reviews – Body and Scar Lover by Harry Crews

There have been two distinct phases in Harry Crews’ literary career. The first, spanning from the publication of his first novel The Gospel Singer in 1968 to that of A Childhood in 1978, can be dubbed his early career. This includes eight novels and one memoir. Then there was a hiatus of nearly a decade, ending in 1987 with the publication of All We Need of Hell. This second blooming produced six full length novels, the last of these being Celebration, published in 1998. In the decade since then, only the novella length An American Family has been published. So, as you can see, Harry Crews has basically had two decade long bursts of publishing spanning the past 40 years. And while everything I have read from Crews’ early phase has been astonishingly good, I am yet to be convinced that the later phase produced work anywhere near the same quality. Body (published 1990) and Scar Lover (published 1992) are novels of this later phase, and while both have their moments, they are both flawed works.

In Body we are introduced to a character familiar to readers of Crews’ The Gypsy’s Curse, Russell “Muscle” Morgan. He is preparing a female bodybuilder,  Shereel Dupont, for a Miss Universe competition. It turns out that Shereel’s real name is Dorothy Turnipseed, and that her family is about to descend on the hotel where the competition is to be held, with dangerous and eventually explosive results. There are a few memorable characters herein, the most memorable being Shereel’s fiancee Nail Head, who is a sight to behold.

Some people have found this to be an amusing, even hilarious book, but it didn’t do it for me. The characters feel like caricatures, the plot is thin, the book as a whole overladen with dialogue. Though it was true that Body did improve in the second half, I couldn’t help but feel that the younger Crews would have compressed this material into little more than 100 pages, like he did with Car. At 280 pages or so, this is a slow, bloated book, and a far cry from the exceptional The Gypsy’s Curse.

I wanted to like Scar Lover, and at first I wasn’t disappointed. Initially, this seemed to me to be a gritty, harrowing read quite unlike the breezy Body. The first part of the novel was excellent. Here we are introduced to our protagonist, Pete Butcher, a down-at-luck young man living in Florida in the 1950s. Interestingly, this is the first Crews novel I’ve read set in a different historical moment to the time of composition. Butcher is a little like Crews himself, or rather a little like how Crews might have been had he not made it through university after serving in the Marine Corps. Pete Butcher works in a boxcar unloading packages of cellophane (which we are told are very heavy) alongside a huge Jamaican man named George. Pete has also just started to fall for his neighbour, a woman called Sarah Leamer. Turns out that Sarah’s mother has breast cancer and, as Pete discovers, maybe Sarah has it too. As I said, the first half is gritty and real in a way that reminds me of Philip K Dick’s mainstream novels, like Humpty Dumpty in Oakland or In Milton Lumky Territory. But then it all falls apart.

The second part of this book is horrible. Words can’t describe. The plot is ridiculous (a pair of Rastafarians and their followers help Pete steal Sarah’s father’s corpse back from the mortuary, before burning it on a funeral pyre in a swamp), the characters thinly drawn (especially the dominatrix Linga), and the dialogue unending. For a writer who claimed, rightly, to have a ‘clean strong line of narrative’ in his novels, fashioned after Graham Greene, Scar Lover fails to live up to the mark. The further it goes, the worse it gets, which is a shame, as everything up to Harry Leamer dropping down dead is well worth reading. And so I conclude my short reviews of these two later Harry Crews novels with the observation that both books are half good: the second half of Body and the first half of Scar Lover.

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