Book Review – The Gospel Singer by Harry Crews
The Gospel Singer, published in 1968, was Harry Crews’ first novel. Hugely expensive in its first edition, I managed to obtain the 1995 Gorse reprint fairly cheaply. This edition also contains Crews’ quasi-sequel to The Gospel Singer, a strange little novella with the unwieldly title of Where Does One Go When There’s No Place Left to Go? But I’ll get to that later. The Gospel Singer is widely regarded as one of Crews’ best novels (some claim it to be his best), and while I believe it never quite attains the heights of his best works, it’s a sturdy and powerful novel nonetheless.
The Gospel Singer is quite a straightforward book really. What we have here is the town of Enigma, Georgia, a hick town that never produced anything of note except for the never-named Gospel Singer, who is said to have a heavenly voice. Early in the novel, the residents of Enigma are waiting for the great man to grace them with his presence. Crews shifts perspective a lot and doesn’t necessarily confine himself to one perspective per chapter. I guess you could say that we have an ominiscient narrator, but it comes across as messily deployed to me. But only a writer would think about that when reading this book.
Some of the author’s characters are beautifully and tragically drawn, however. That seems to be Crews’ main talent – to illuminate the myriad ecstasies and agonies of the human heart. That sounds a bit wanky, but I’ll let it pass if you will. So we have a strong chapter early on from the perspective of the Gospel Singer’s older brother Gerd, who is shown to have a terrible skin condition that makes him something of a freak himself. While he waits for his brother to return, Gerd is happened upon by one of the freaks from Foot’s freakshow, and he is forced to consider joining up as a way of escaping Enigma.
Another character hovering around the edge of this narrative is the ‘nigger’ (Crews’ word, not mine – same with the ‘freaks above) Willalee Bookatee Hull, who has just raped and murdered the Gospel Singer’s gilfriend MaryBell Carter. He’s in the jailhouse and soon to be lynched by the local mob. We don’t find out what really happened until near the end of the story, and as it turns out, it’s basically the Gospel Singer’s fault.
In fact, just about everything in The Gospel Singer turns out to be his fault, and if I can fault this book, maybe it’s in that the central idea is so central that all else seems peripheral. The Gospel Singer is supposed to be saving the souls of those who hear his beautiful voice, but in fact he himself is a Godless character who wants nothing but to screw his way around the US, which he does on every available occasion. This is the crux of the book – that the people of Enigma and surrounds are living a lie by placing their faith in the fallen Gospel Singer. He himself knows this, and he resents them for it and perpetuates the lie. His manager, Didymus, forces him to do singing exercises as penance for his sins. He’s also a murderer himself, having slaughtered the singer’s original manager. Whew. That makes for a pretty grim novel, does it not?
And the mob. Just like in the later (and better) A Feast of Snakes, the mob is the personification of evil itself in The Gospel Singer. The crowd builds and builds as the novel proceeds to its inevitable conclusion, and so does the stifling atmosphere of the novel. As the day draws to a close, the mob becomes increasingly lawless. A great number of these people are maimed or crippled themselves and in need of salvation. The embalmer’s daughter is blind and in need of a miracle to regain her sight, but in fact she is the only person who can see through the Gospel Singer’s image. And there are plenty of others trying to get a piece of him. Meanwhile, we have the king freak Foot (he has a 27 inch foot) presiding over his carnival nearby. It turns out that Foot has been following the Gospel Singer around the country, as the latter had suspected, but only as a way of drawing a crowd to his shows. Foot is probably the sanest character in the book, which is Crews’ way of showing us the uselessness of our categories of normal and freak, sane and insane. But it doesn’t stop the Gospel Singer from fucking Foot’s minder/girlfriend/whore when he’s out.
There’s a little more to the novel than this, but not much. Toward the end, I felt that Crews was simply sending the Gospel Singer on a tour of all the remaining characters that were worth talking to. The plot creaks a little and there are a few passages where the writer’s voice seems a little unsure. But if The Gospel Singer is ultimately only three quarters of what Crews could achieve as a writer, I know this for a fact because I’ve already read two of the novels where he perfected this apocalyptic arc: The Gypsy’s Curse and A Feast of Snakes.
Where Does One Go When There’s No Place Left to Go? is a novella length metafiction of a kind that Crews has expressed a distate for in several interviews. In it, some of the characters from his novels come to life and visit him in his cabin by the swamp, before capturing Crews and taking him on a road trip in Duffy’s modified Winnebago. These characters are Duffy Deeter (who has a minor role in A Feast of Snakes and a major one in the then-unwritten All We Need of Hell), Fat Man from Naked in Garden Hills, Belt from Karate is a Thing of the Spirit, Herman and Margo from Car, and the Gospel Singer and Didymus from the novel discussed at length above.
There are interesting aspects of this novella, but mainly those that relate to the writing process and the strange bind Crews has placed him in here. As a work of fiction, or even metafiction, this must be regarded as a failure. The characters say their pieces, interact to some extent, and get their revenge on Crews, but the story itself goes nowhere. For a work that is scarcely 100 pages in length, I found myself bored at least two or three times. I’m glad I read this, but I’m even more glad that I didn’t shell out a hundred dollars for a secondhand edition of this novella in its standalone edition.